In the wake of the enormous events of the Day of Pentecost comes this oft-quoted description of the Apostolic fellowship among the first Christians:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe/fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.Acts 2:42-47
Here we see what is, presumably, a healthy Christian community being established. Here we see what is, presumably, a set of ingredients that characterize authentic Christian relationships and lives. There are, of course, several things that are specific to that context which cannot and should not be replicated in subsequent times: we no longer meet (nor need to meet) in the Temple at Jerusalem, and the selling of possessions to provide for others was a temporary crisis need while there were thousands of faithful visiting Jerusalem that day who suddenly decided to prolong their stay. Yet the general descriptions here are (it is safe to say) normative for Christian living: generosity, hospitality, freely-offered assistance, gladness, and thankfulness, all to the continual growth of the Church both in faith and in numbers.
The most important verse here, however, is probably the first in this paragraph, verse 42: “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” There is much here that is not always obvious, especially to the English-language reader of today.
the apostles’ teaching
What were the Apostles teaching? Well, we just had an example of apostolic preaching from St. Peter in verses 14-40 of Acts 2. There, he opened the Scriptures, preached the Word, called for repentance and baptism, spelled out the Gospel with historical context, and argued the divinity of Christ. That’s a lot – dogma, theology, exhortation, biblical studies, all packed into a few paragraphs! If this is any indication, the Apostles’ Teaching must have been quite wide-reaching and thorough indeed.
Imagine a group of Christian devoted to learning the Bible, theology, ethics and other applications of the Gospel. Not just a casual “Bible Study” toying with a pet theme from the Scriptures, but solid meaty exposition of the Law, Prophets, and other Writings, both Old Covenant and New – what if most Christians were so committed? What if it was normal to learn the basics of theology so that every adult could not only recite the Creed but also explain it? Consider how mature the Church would be if it was normal for a church-goer to have memorized the Ten Commandments and the various prohibitions and positive teachings that derive from them? How amazing would that be.
The fellowship, or participation or communion among the members of the Church, is another thing the people were devoted to. Yes, many Christians enjoy “coffee hour” after the worship service, but how many are devotees of it? Imagine the friendships, the bonds of trust and love, that would emerge if most church-goers were committed to spending time together? It is common in “small groups” to share prayer requests with one another – but what if the social life among local Christians was close enough that most of those prayer requests would already be known? Imagine the love and support that could be offered before someone even asks!
For many Christians, I think the “norm” is to fraternize with friends and colleagues in social circles that aren’t the Church. We have coworkers or college friends or family members who do not know Christ, and they comprise the majority of our social lives. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – there are nonchristians around us all of course, and we do need to be able to “lights in the world”, but imagine how much stronger church-goers would be if they were bolstered by one another’s company more often throughout the week? You don’t have to cloister yourself away to be immersed in a culture of faith.
the breaking of the bread
This can be a little tricky. A couple verses later the description of Apostolic Christian life reports “breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts“, which clearly refers to sharing meals with one another. But in verse 42 it says “THE breaking of the bread”. That definite article denotes something particular; this is not any bread-breaking going on, but something special. Many biblical interpreters have understood this to be the rite of Holy Communion, wherein Christ has commanded us to remember him, memorialize his sacrifice on the Cross, and feed on his body and blood to our endless comfort and spiritual nourishment. The people were devoted to attending divine worship, and the service of Holy Communion.
For most Christians today this not so difficult to relate to. However strong or weak our commitment to church attendance may be, all church-goers do share some level of devotion to attending church. And, especially those of us in the liturgically-minded traditions, participating in Holy Communion is a regular part of that commitment. But… what if more of us were committed not only to attending the breaking of the bread but to the breaking of the bread itself? The resolution to “be at church” is one thing, but to “participate with hearty faith” in another thing entirely. The visible participation can be just lip service, but heartily feeding on Christ by faith with thanksgiving can be another thing entirely. Imagine being devoted to the memorial of Christ’s sacrifice for us sinners; imagine the depth of faith that would be engendered if more of us were concerned not only for showing up, but investing ourselves in the sacrament of the altar? That we not just “do the red and say the black” but invest our attention and pious desires in the spiritual acts that underlay the physical presence and participation?
and the prayers
Some translations just read “and to prayer.” But, again, there is a definite article here. The Apostolic community was not devoted to prayer in general, but to the prayers, indicating some defined set of prayers or liturgy or order that was going on. This probably included time-based prayers from the synagogue tradition (like morning, noon, evening, and other “hours”) as well as specific content (like the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms and other prayers that were appropriate to the time or occasion).
Indeed, all Christians are encouraged to pray, and all church-goers are at least exposed to prayer in the corporate worship of the Church. But something that lacks in many churches is direction and encouragement toward the prayers. It’s one thing to tell people they ought to pray, but another matter entirely to offer guidance, advice, and direction in how to pray. All too easily, the modern Christian might say, “the pastor prays for me, so that’s fine”, or “the intercessory prayer team has got this covered”, or “the monks or clergy are doing the daily office on our behalf already”. But imagine if “the prayers” were de-professionalized, and it was normal for most Christians to be praying the Morning and Evening hours. That was the vision of Archbishop Cranmer when he took the monastic offices and distilled them into two simple services of Morning Prayer (Mattins) and Evening Prayer (Vespers). Anyone who could read would be able to pick up the Prayer Book and a Bible and pray these offices with ease from day to day. Can you imagine the stability of spiritual life that Christians would have if most of us prayed so thoroughly and were immersed in the Scriptures so completely every day – if we were devoted to the prayers?
This little verse, Acts 2:42, is profound. It describes with such brief words a rich spiritual life in the newly-formed Christian community. There are times and places where churches meet this challenge and emulate this standard, but all too often we fall short of this beauty and comprehensiveness. Pastors and clergymen can only do so much – what if you endeavored to pursue the apostles’ teaching and sought out regular teaching and study in the Christian faith? What if you committed yourself to the fellowship with your fellow church-goers beyond simply showing up for worship once a week? What if you devoted yourself to celebration of Holy Communion and to the daily prayers of the Church? How would your life look different, and what benefits might you and your fellow church members reap from such richness?