Reflection by Rev. Richard Jorgensen
41 Then those who gladly received his word were baptized. There were added that day about three thousand souls. 42 They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and prayer. 43 Fear came on every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. 44 All who believed were together, and had all things in common. 45 They sold their possessions and goods, and distributed them to all, according as anyone had need. 46 Day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. The Lord added to the assembly day by day those who were being saved.
Acts 2:42-47 offers what is the first of four summary statements (see also Acts 4:32-37; 5:12-16 and 6:7) used early in the book of Acts to describe the shape and life of the early Christian community. These summary statements are more than merely historic descriptions, they are also theological statements which describe an ideal vision for the life and mission of the church.
When members of the crowd heard Peter’s preaching, they were cut to the heart and they asked Peter and the other disciples what they must do, and they were told “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The word repent has been misused by so many people for so long; sometimes its original meaning is lost. To repent did not necessarily imply a deep sense of guilt or regret; it did mean that someone was responding and being changed by what they had heard, seen or experienced. (The feelings of deep guilt, and perhaps even shame, might more accurately be called remorse, which may or may not change someone for the better. Indeed, in Matthew’s Gospel, Judas feels remorse after he has betrayed Jesus; however, he does not actually repent. On the other hand, after Peter denies knowing Jesus three times, he also repents when he hears the cock crow and remembers the words of Christ.)
On the one hand, to repent means to have a change of heart or thinking. We see this when the crowd moves from rejecting Jesus as Messiah to believing Peter’s preaching and receiving baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Another meaning of the word repentance means to change direction or to turn around. In this story, the crowd’s repentance does not stop at merely changing their hearts, it also changes the direction of their lives.
Before the advent of the spirit, they had been pilgrims, or perhaps even spiritual tourists, visiting Jerusalem. After baptism, “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and prayer”(Acts 2:42).* There is a four-fold description of what is essential for this community of faith. In the original Greek, there is a definite article attached to each one. In other words, they are dedicated to the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers.
The Apostles’ Teaching: The Apostles were witnesses to Jesus’ ministry from the time of John’s baptism through Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. The faith of the community is based on the faithful testimony of those who had seen and heard Jesus’ ministry and teaching. These were people who had followed Jesus during his earthly ministry, and now continue that ministry with their own proclamation and teaching. Just as the early disciples relied on the witness of those who were the first believers, we are still dependent on the Apostolic witness today. That witness was essential to shaping the canon of the New Testament, and the faith we have received from those who came before us in faith.
The Fellowship: The Greek word, translated as “fellowship,” is “koinonia” (koinwnia) which originally would have referred to a business partnership. In the early Christian community, it took on new meaning and came to refer to our partnership in the Gospel with God and with one another. The word is sometimes domesticated today to refer to social gatherings and covered dish suppers; however, in the New Testament, it referred to a total commitment of one’s life to God and the community of faith. The depth of this partnership/commitment is seen in how the community holds all goods in common and there is not a needy member among them.
The Breaking of the Bread: In the book The Shape of the Liturgy, Dom Gregory Dix observes that in the Gospels there is a pattern to how Jesus shares meals with his disciples which is repeated in numerous stories including (but not limited to) the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the Feeding of the Four Thousand, the Night in which Jesus is Betrayed, and the Meal with the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus. The pattern is the same each time: Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to his disciples. We now see the early church continuing the same pattern of sharing in the breaking of the bread and experiencing the continued presence of the Risen Lord whenever they are gathered at the table together. Just as the earliest disciples gathered for the breaking of the bread, this same meal continues to define the shape of Christian worship today.
The Prayers: The earliest disciples were Jewish and continued the share in the traditional hours of prayer which were offered at the third hour (9 AM), the sixth hour (noon) and the ninth hour (3 pm). The hours of prayer gave shape to the day and reminded the people of Israel that all of life and creation belonged to God. The early church continued this prayer pattern and did not perceive itself to be something apart from Israel, rather, they saw Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promise. Continued prayer practice in the Temple not only kept them connected to the traditional prayers of Israel, but these hours also coincided with the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion and death. While patterns of prayer may have changed over the past two thousand years, to this day, there are members of the Christian community who continue to observe fixed hours of prayer and continue the same pattern of seeing all of life as shaped and defined by God.
The new life of this community is shaped and empowered by the Holy Spirit, and it is filled with great joy. The shape of the community and life which they share together calls for a deep commitment from these new believers, and they give themselves not reluctantly, but joyfully to God’s work among them. Day by day they continue to be committed to the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of the bread and fellowship, and day by day the Lord added to their community “those who were being saved.”
This is a hopeful passage of what the church should be as people of God. This challenges us to notice that the way we commit ourselves to the Gospel really does matter. The ways in which we pray and worship and commit ourselves to being partners with God and one another should in all things reflect the ongoing presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our midst. We should give our lives to God and one another freely and fully, and with great joy. Together, we witness to the power of the Risen Christ among us still and trust that God will continue to work among us day by day to continue God’s work of salvation.
*A more literal translation of Acts 2:42 reads, “They were remaining constant in the teaching of the apostles and the partnership, the breaking of the bread and the prayers.”
Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits thou hast given me,
for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
may I know thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly,
and follow thee more nearly, day by day.
Amen. (Saint Richard of Chichester)