The Praying Community: A Sermon based on Acts 2:42-47
The past number of weeks, we as a church have been exploring how God is calling us to be his church in this time and place. We’ve been exploring the vision statements that our church put together around 20 years ago along with the picture of the church in the book of Acts as a way of seeking out God’s will for us as his church here in Telkwa in this season. Last week we explored the part of our vision statement that reads “We value biblical, reformed, Christ-centred preaching that transforms us.” Before that we explored the part of our vision statement that says, “We value worship that honours God and fully engages all God’s people.”
This week we’re going to focus on the part of our vision statement that says, “We value being a praying church”. And to get at what it means to be a praying church, we’re going to explore this picture of the church in Acts 2. What I’d like to focus on particularly with you today is the way that prayer and deep community go hand in hand.
At the beginning of the passage we read, Luke, the author of Acts describes four things that church community is devoted to living out continually: teaching, fellowship, breaking bread together and prayer. We get a picture of a community that is both intimately and deeply connected with God and with one another. (Note too though, that this church in Acts avoids being an insular community or some kind of clique or private club that doesn’t have room for others. They continue to welcome in daily those who God adds to their community!)
Today I want to focus our attention on the fact that the picture of the church here in our passage and really throughout the NT is one who’s deep connection to and dependence on God expressed in prayer drives them to a deep connection and care for each other--that is the natural overflow of a life of devotion to God. Friendship and devotion to God lead to friendship and devotion to others, which then leads to deeper dependence on God and friendship with God. Deep connection with God leads to deep connection and care for others.
Prayer, at its heart, is an expression of our friendship with God. It’s an expression of our openness to God, our dependence on God and our trust in God. That’s true in our one-on-one prayers and when we pray together in community. Prayer is for everyone who is a friend of God. The ultimate motive of prayer isn’t just to express our needs or to try and get God to do what we want or to fulfill some kind of obligation, or to cross something off our to-do list, but to meet with God. It’s an expression of friendship with God where we desire to know and be known, to love and be loved. To pray is one of the most deeply human things we can do because through prayer, we live out the reality that we were created to be in loving relationship with the One who made us and that we depend on him. Prayer reminds us again that being Christian doesn’t just mean giving our intellectual assent to some statements like, “God is real”, though it includes that. Being a follower of Jesus is about being invited into a transforming relationship of love.
When we say then, that we as a church value being a praying church, part what we must be saying is that it’s important to us to be a people who are in a relationship of deep friendship with God and deep dependence on God. Has that been your experience of this church? How do you see that practically lived out in our gatherings? What about throughout the week? Does our friendship with God overflow into friendship with others and practical care for others like it did in this church in Acts?
I’d like to share with you a couple of the ways that I’ve seen this cycle of connection to God and connection with others at work in this church in my time here so far. One thing that I’ve noticed during our gatherings on Sundays is how this church is so ready to get up and gather around to pray for each other. When the Spirit gives guidance to say, “Now is a moment to stop and pray”, this church is faithful to that call. Often this church will gather around and pray during the service for someone who is hurting or who needs prayer in a special way. Sometimes this happens in a public way during the service. Other times it happens quietly after the service where people will find a quiet place to ask God for help together. Still others will silently pray to God in their hearts for others during our gatherings, perhaps without the other person ever knowing. To me, this is a picture of how deep friendship with God flows out into deep care for others and dependence on him to give us what is needed.
The other way I’ve seen this at work is through the small groups in our church. Joe and I have had the gift of being part of two small groups since we’ve come to this church. The first one is a group being hosted at John and Joanne Wisselink’s and the second group that we are now a part of, is actually a daughter group to John and Joanne’s, as that one had the potential of getting to be too big. God has shown me in each of these groups what it means to be part of a praying community. In both small groups we share a potluck meal together in a home. To me, getting to share meals with others is a way of experiencing belonging at God’s family table. Another practice at small group is for each person to take a turn telling their life story. Each one shares how they’ve been shaped by different experiences in life and how they’ve seen God at work. In hearing each story, it seems more of God’s character and power is revealed. Also, I’m always struck by how each person who shares is such a dearly loved child of God, someone God has known and treasured all their lives whether they have been aware or not. Another huge gift of these meetings to me is the prayer time after someone shares their story. The Holy Spirit uses different people to speak out a need or voice a truth or ask for something particular that’s needed. These times are so rich partly because God draws me out of myself, out of my own limited vision and habits and to know that I don’t just belong to myself or even just to God. I belong to God and am part of his family. Experiencing that through these groups has been such a gift to me of encouragement, in remembering that I’m not walking this life alone. And I’m often tempted to think that.
Sometimes to be honest, I’m tempted to desire that, to desire just being left alone because in some ways it appears it would be easier. Making the choice to be in relationship can be hard and in some ways it’s a discipline. Some nights I really would rather just plop on the couch and zone out instead of going to small group. Some nights I don’t feel like talking to God, opening my heart to him.
That’s the thing about friendship with God expressed in prayer. Prayer brings us back to relationship with God when we might rather be left alone. Prayer also brings us back to relationship with other people when we might rather be left well enough alone. This picture of the church in Acts 2 is incredible tension with so much of our culture that says the ideal life is one where you are independent, self-sufficient, able to make your own free choices and not be bound by anyone or anything. We as a church can buy into that picture of what it means to be human too, not wanting to ask for or receive help, not wanting to feel obligated to others, avoiding commitments for the sake of more personal freedom, jealously guarding our own time or our own money. We can view our faith as something personal, that’s just between me and God, that I can live out without the help of the community.
The painful reality behind this vision of what it means to be human is the deep loneliness that results. It’s also just not a biblical picture of what it is to be a child of God. Biblically speaking, the call to be a child of God is intimately tied with the call to be a brother or sister in the family of God. This is what 1 John 4:19-21 say, “We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” Notice too, that biblically speaking love always acts. It isn’t only admiration. Love works in practical ways for the flourishing of the other.
The life of prayer which expresses our identity as friends and children of God will inevitably lead to a call to friendship to others. Out of one, must flow the other. In this picture of the church in Acts 2, we don’t see a bunch of individuals pursuing their friendship with God separately. We don’t see people who are left to live out their faith on their own without support or encouragement. We don’t see people in the community who are left to fend for themselves. We see a community bound together by their love of God that is lived out partly by deeply caring for and loving one another in practical ways by sharing meals, resources and friendship, and by being open to and welcoming the other.
To me, one of the most powerful ways that the church can be a prophetic voice in this culture is to be a place of genuine community. Where we make a conscious choice to open our lives and our hearts to others, modeling the way that God opens himself to us. Where we share meals together in our homes, or we share our concerns or delights with each other, where we lift each other up to our heavenly Father, Where people can know what it is to be loved by God because they’ve experienced a taste of what it means to be known and loved and welcomed in by his people.
A community without prayer at best quickly turns into a well-intentioned club that might be busy doing all kinds of worthy things, but misses the one thing that’s needed. It will miss the freedom that comes from dependency on God and one another. It will miss the call beyond ourselves to the gift of community. It will miss the gift of seeing things from God’s point of view. And it will miss the true heart of community because true community is grounded in and flows out of the deep, self-giving love of God for his people.
Are we living into our calling as a praying church? Are there gaps in the way we live out this calling? Are there practices or structures that might free us to live more in line with who we are as friends of God and one another? Are we a people who individually and together are in a relationship of deep friendship with God and deep dependence on God? Out of that friendship with God, are we experiencing genuine community with each other?
Let’s come to God in prayer.