Two decades ago, a tenured English and women’s study professor at Syracuse University received a dinner invitation from a Christian couple named Ken and Floy Smith. The invitee, the academic, was in a same-sex relationship, and a staunch advocate for LGBT aims alongside her partner. But the professor accepted the invite, and the female scholar who described herself as “a radical, committed unbeliever” began a friendship with the Christians who invited her into their home. After that dinner, the woman read and re-read large portions of the Bible. Thru Bible reading and conversations with the Christian couple, the Gospel became clear to the professor, and she became a follower of Jesus. Her name is Rosaria Butterfield. Today, she is a pastor’s wife, a home-school mom, an author, and a speaker, but most importantly she is a daughter of God and apprentice of Jesus. She recounts her conversion to Christianity in her book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key.
How does a self-professed “radical, committed, unbeliever” become transformed into a passionate follower of Jesus? I believe the way Ken and Floy Smith developed their friendship with Rosaria Butterfield, living their lives in obedience to King Jesus is going to provide the answer. And I think how the early Christians passionately followed Jesus is also going to shed some light on how heart and soul transformation occurs.
Today, we are going to see how the early church offers a blueprint for us in how we ought to follow Jesus and fulfill the Great Commission. In many ways, Ken and Floy, lived their lives the same way the early Christians did. These Christians did four things: They devoted themselves to the Gospel, they dedicated their lives to the church community, they became instruments of grace to all those around them, and they became disciples who make disciples.
- Devoted to the Gospel
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.
The definition of devote is “Give all or a large part of one’s time or resources to (a person, activity, or cause)” This isn’t just something the early Christians did on Sunday. It was a way of life. They did life together. They lived side by side.
What are you devoted to? Your work, your family, maybe a college football team? Hopefully, not in that order. What would it look like for you to be devoted to the Gospel like these early Christians? What would it look like in your life to “Give all or a large part of one’s time or resources to (a person, activity, or cause).” If we’re going to follow the blueprint of the early Christians, then it’s a question we need to wrestle with and answer. Consider the example of Ken and Floy Smith. They devoted themselves to the Gospel—that’s the apostle’s teaching. They were very familiar with the Bible, the Word of God—studying it and applying it daily to their lives. They were also very hospitable. They regularly opened up their home to neighbors and acquaintances including Rosaria. They were very intentional about spending time with her and persistent. Not in a creepy or stalkish, but in a sincere, caring, and focused way.
2. Dedicated to the Church Community
46 Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house.
We were made for community. If COVID-19 has done anything, it’s made it abundantly clear we need meaningful relationships and community. Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States writes in his book, Together, “The more I studied this seesaw relationship between loneliness and togetherness, the more convinced I became of the great power of human connection. So many of the problems we face as a society from addiction and violence to disengagement among workers and students to political polarization are worsened by loneliness and disconnection. Building a more connected world holds the key to solving these and many more of the personal and societal problems confronting us today.”
God’s divine remedy for fulfilling the needs of human connection is the church community. Here we have all the elements we need to weather the storms of life – God’s Word, genuine family fellowship, hospitality (serving one another), and prayer. You do life with God’s people, guess what? You’re gonna be connected. You’re going to grow stronger spiritually. A lot of us like to exercise with a partner. There’s a reason the Army does physical readiness training together. We motivate one another and hold one another accountable. When it comes to spiritual fitness, the same reality holds true. We need other Christians loving us, praying for and with us, leaning on us and vice versa.
You and I were never intended to face the storms of life alone. There’s this notion that many of us have embraced that we can follow God alone. It’s a lie. I majored in history in college. I researched a lot of military history. Shocker. From the Peloponnesian wars from antiquity, to the medieval ages, to the Napoleonic wars, to the American civil war, to the world wars, you know what I discovered? No war was ever won by an individual. We were meant to live and fight thru the battles of life together. Life is a battle. Don’t believe me? I recently talked with a chaplain friend who told me 35 marriages in his battalion were headed toward divorce. 35. In one battalion! Families being ripped apart.
Isolated targets get destroyed. If you go thru life isolated, apart from the church community, whether you realize it or not, you are on the road to destruction. But there’s a better way. The Way of Jesus is understanding God made us for community, and we thrive when we live life side by side with others who fighting the darkness and following King Jesus. You know something? These early Christians weren’t even known as Christians back then. They were known as “The Way.” It’s because they were living their lives according to the Way of Jesus. We think of Jesus as Messiah, and He is. But he’s also a rabbi.
So the early Christians were dedicated to the church community. What would it look like for you to be dedicated to the church community?
At Agape, one of the best ways you can be dedicated to the church community is through missional communities. We prioritize three key activities: build relationships, make the Gospel clear, and serve our world.
How do we build relationships?
- Rapport – honesty and empathy create rapport. Honesty is hard sometimes. It demands some vulnerability and transparency. It also requires some tactfulness and wisdom. Empathy is adopting what another person is feeling or experiencing and then moving toward them, joining them where they are and demonstrating love and compassion. When we are empathetic and honest with people, we build rapport, and rapport builds relationships.
- Hospitality sharing meals together (breaking bread together sets the conditions for relationship growth) – So often you see Jesus in the Gospels enjoying meals with people. Hospitality is a gift of service to others.
- We pray for one another. Dr. Butterfield says that Ken and Floy faithfully and persistently prayed for her. They loved her like a daughter.
We make the Gospel clear by studying the Word of God and then putting it into practice. We learn the apostle’s teaching or the Gospel, and then we live it. It’s a process that takes time, energy, effort. We prioritize it, so it becomes a way of life. We explain the Gospel to friends, neighbors, co-workers, and then we invite them to follow Jesus. Once we build relationships and make the Gospel clear, then the Spirit of God creates in us a fervent desire to serve. We become instruments of God’s grace, and servanthood begins to naturally flows thru us..
3. They Became Instruments of Grace
Look at Acts 2:43-45: 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. 44 Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. 45 They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need.
The early church had a simple modus operandi when it came to service. See need, meet need. But they were able to see the needs before them, because they were devoted to the Gospel and dedicated to the church community. If you aren’t devoted to the Gospel or dedicated to the church community, you are going to miss a lot of opportunities to love your neighbor. Won’t happen consistently, because you won’t even see the needs around you. The early Christians were on a Spirit-led mission to meet needs. Their posture was proactive not reactive, and again, the reason is that they were devoted to the Gospel and dedicated to the church community.
33 With great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on all of them.
They’re making the Gospel clear with power. Why? Because they’re receiving the same resurrection power that brought Jesus back from the grave. Their relentless devotion to the Gospel and dedication to the church community flows into Gospel service and fulfillment of the Great Commission. Look at verse 34.]
34 For there was not a needy person among them because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of what was sold, 35 and laid them at the apostles’ feet. This was then distributed to each person as any had need. 36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus by birth, the one the apostles called Barnabas (which is translated Son of Encouragement), 37 sold a field he owned, brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
Luke, the writer of Acts, is setting the stage for us when it comes to how God uses Barnabas as an instrument of grace. Barnabas exemplifies generous and sacrificial giving. And as the story of Acts unfolds, we see God reward his faith and obedience and transform him into one of the greatest missionaries and spiritual mentors in history. He provides critical support to Paul and grace and encouragement to John Mark who wrote the Gospel of Mark. Barnabas was completely committed to fulfilling the Great Commission, and that included being financially committed.
We also see Barnabas and other Christians trusting the leaders of the church to discern how to best steward the gifts. Likewise, we ought to entrust the majority of our giving to the local church, and the reason is that the church community is tasked with fulfilling the Great Commission. The Great Commission IS our mission. We, the pastoral team at Agape, take this responsibility very seriously and devote extensive prayer and effort to steward tithes and offerings wisely in fulfilling this mission.
We see the early church giving generously, sacrificially and cheerfully. We are called to do the same. In the Old Testament, people of God gave a tithe of ten percent. In the New Testament, you see Christians giving well above ten percent of their income. They were radical givers. They understood that money and possessions are lended to us by God. We are stewards of what He has entrusted to us. They clearly understood that God wants us to be instruments of grace to lavish His love and meet the needs of others. They eliminated neediness among their church body. Wiped it out.
Giving is a faith decision. Your giving (or lack thereof) is a strong indicator of who is Lord of your life. Are you worshipping money? Or God? Jesus said you can’t worship both. As Pastor Eric likes to say, Jesus is either Lord of all (including your bank account), or He’s not Lord at all. Following Jesus in obedience and giving has eternal consequences.
As we follow Him we begin seeing giving less as a responsibility and more as an opportunity to advance the Kingdom of God. There’s joy in embracing the truth that every good gift comes from our Father in Heaven (James 1:17). All the good things we receive in life are gifts from God. From the New Testament, you and I should give generously, sacrificially, joyfully, regularly, secretly, thankfully, and spontaneously.
How about you? Are you actively pursuing opportunities to give—and not just financially, but with our time and energy. Are you seeing needs and meeting needs around you with your family? Your neighbors?
4. They Became Disciples who made Disciples
Lastly, we see that the early church were disciples who made disciples. Don’t miss the progression here. When we devote ourselves to the Gospel, when we dedicate ourselves to the church community, the Holy Spirit transforms us into instruments of grace. God draws people to Himself thru the body of Christ- thru our love and actions. And then we become disciples who make disciples.
Verse 47: Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Rewind to verse 46. They ate their food with joyful and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.
Outsiders see our joy. They glimpse God’s grace thru the radical generosity, extravagant love and unity of God’s people—the church. They see a different way to do life. And this joy intrinsic to the Way of Jesus is contagious. They want joy, meaning, fulfillment and purpose—because God created these desires in all of us. We help them understand these are divine gifts that only a relationship with the divine can provide. When people become disciples of Jesus, they receive the greatest gift God has given us. Himself. He gives us the Holy Spirit, so we enjoy the constant presence of God in our lives.
Remember Jesus’ meeting w/ Nicodemus in the Gospel of John? Nicodemus was a religious leader drawn to Jesus, and He wanted to understand what Jesus was about. Jesus told him and us in John 3, you must be born again to see the Kingdom of God or to have eternal life. Nicodemus is perplexed by this born-again statement. “How do I physically do that? I’m a grown man?!” Of course, Jesus is saying we must be spiritually born again. You see you and I are born, and we sin. We feel guilt and shame for things we’ve done that we know are wrong. The book of Romans says because we sin, we are enemies of God. We rebel against God, because we choose darkness instead of the light. So Jesus, the greatest rabbi or teacher who ever walked the earth, because He is the Son of God, says. You have to be born again. Start over Nicodemus. Start over Justin. Start really living life as you were always meant to live it thru me by following me. Jesus said, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Life isn’t all about you. It’s about God and what He has done for You and me.
There is no Gospel, no good news to devote ourselves to if Jesus didn’t take our place on the cross and defeat sin and death thru His resurrection. Jesus was so dedicated to the church community He came to earth to die for us, as our substitute, so we can live in relationship with God and have eternal life! Jesus is the ultimate instrument of grace. We experience God’s grace poured out on us, because Jesus’ blood was poured out for us on the cross. He gave himself completely to us. This is the Way of Jesus. These gifts were costly. But they show us just how much God loves us. These gifts are available to us today. 2 Corinthians 5:15 tells us how we should respond: “And he died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the one who died for them and was raised.”
Like the early church, we can become selfless, because Jesus paid for our selfishness on the cross. We can be unified today, because Jesus paid for our divisiveness and polarizing actions on the cross. Our response should be to live our lives completely devoted to King Jesus and His bride, the church.
1 Kings 18 describes the showdown on Mount Carmel between Elijah a prophet of God and the false prophets of Baal. Israel is in turmoil. The country has experienced spiritual darkness and famine. A drought for 3 years. Elijah called the people to return to God, and repentance occurs with obedience and faith. Elijah placed wood on the altar in faith. We read earlier that God delivered the fire. He demonstrated His power and desire to bring Israel back into right relationship with Himself.
At Agape, you and I are called, like Elijah, to place wood on the altar by following the spiritual blueprint of the early church. People all around us are hurting and dying spiritually because they do not know God. He wants you and me to be ambassadors and deliver a message of hope and reconciliation to God.
Closing questions: Are you devoting your life to the Gospel? Are you dedicated to the church community and using your spiritual gifts for corporate worship and missional communities? Are you an instrument of grace or a servant missionary meeting needs in your community? Are you a disciple who makes disciples?
Theologian Kyle Strobel wrote, “Our actions do not create grace; our actions cannot create holiness, any more than Elijah’s placing of wood on the altar created fire. Rather, we practice these things out of faithfulness to God, trusting that he will provide the fire.”
If you’re not a Christian, Jesus is inviting you today to start over. Live life thru Him and for Him. Follow Him with us at Agape. If you already are a Christian, Jesus calls you to go all in. Be devoted to the Gospel. Be dedicated to this church community. Search for opportunities to be an instrument of grace and become a disciple who make disciples. This is what it means to gather the wood together and place it on the altar. We trust God for the fire. In the meantime, we obey Him in faith, patiently waiting to see His power manifested thru us.