Over the last few weeks Peggy and I have had the opportunity to attend several track meets to watch our daughter Grace. Needless to say, we always enjoy seeing so many young people out there running and jumping and throwing. It is a pleasure to see what the kids can accomplish.
The other day while we were watching the Conference Meet we overheard the judge instruct the runners for the 800 Meter Run. The judge told the boys how they were to approach their marks before he would fire the gun. The instruction was simple: He would say the command “To your mark” which would signal to them to move up, and then he would shoot the gun, beginning the race.
What I found a little amusing what was that when the judge made his command to move to the mark, several of the runners stood still; they didn’t move. Rather than start with the others who had moved up, these boys remained in place, already two paces behind. And the race hadn’t even started!
To your mark!
From the days of the ancient games in Greece, the “mark” was that unique design on the track or field, identifying the athlete. Anyone who knew all the competitors’ “marks” could tell who was running as they lined up.
Therefore, the first command to the runner is not “go,” but “on your mark.”/1/
Early Christian “Marks of Community”
That’s a good way to understand our passage from the Acts of the Apostles today: following the preaching of Peter on the resurrection of Jesus, the first apostles were quick to establish the definitive “marks” of the church; they were quick to embody these marks in the life of this new community as they went about running the race of faith.
Luke tells us that from the start this new community took on a unique shape. In fact, it might be helpful to think of the early church as the first attempt at spiritual “cross-training.”
Cross-training is the concept that gets gymnasts lifting weights while football players take ballet. Lately, it has become popular through different kinds of shoes.
According to Luke, from the very beginning the church practiced a kind of spiritual cross-training by committing itself to four basic exercises:
First, there was a commitment to teaching: the early apostles’ passed on what Jesus had taught. They took time to instruct and counsel new converts.
Second, there was support to have fellowship together. The early Christians took time to be together, to enjoy relationships, to encourage and to support.
Third, there was the benefit of breaking bread together, not only during the celebration of Communion but also with other families and in homes. There was a commitment to give and share.
And fourth, there was prayer to strengthen the whole fabric of the church’s life. There was an intentional effort to lift up others and to remember the concerns of the whole community. Prayer was a key part of the church’s success.
Luke tells us that these early Christians did a great deal of cross-training together, so much so that when they practiced this way of life they saw “many signs and wonders” taking place (2:43), they were able to share “all things in common” (2:44), and sell their possessions and goods and give the proceeds to any who had a need (2:45); they were able to gather in homes and praise God (2:46), and respond with glad and generous hearts to the concerns of others (2:46).
And everyday that these Christians practiced this way of life the Lord would add to their numbers those who were being saved (2:47).
What began as a small house gathering would grow into a worldwide movement: all after the preaching of Peter’s first sermon! What any pastor would give for such a response! From country chapel to mega-church all in one day, in less than one hour! I can tell you that didn’t happen after my first sermon!
It was like these early Christians had entered the Zone! Do you know what I mean by the Zone? In athletics the Zone is that extraordinary place in which action and reaction seem to happen automatically. Everything falls into its right order and rhythm. Everything is clicking and falling into place.
The baseball looks like a watermelon. The basket looks like a hula hoop. In golf the swing is effortless and every ball flies straight off the tie.
It is Michael Jordan winning six NBA championships, or Lance Armstrong winning a record sixth Tour de France – the flow, the effortless present, all humming together./2/
Our passage from Acts describes what happens when the church enters the Zone of the Holy Spirit, when “awe and wonder” come over the whole assembly (2:43) and when believers discover the true purpose of the Christian life – in community.
Suddenly, the true “marks” of the church become visible and apparent to all – the generous giving, the glad hearts, the warm fellowship, the faithful teaching, the breaking of bread, the commitment to pray, and the praising of God.
When these “marks” become visible, people can actually see how the Holy Spirit is working; they can visually locate what the Lord is doing through the company of faithful followers: through a church marked with God’s promises!
Where Is this Church?
Let me ask you: Have you seen this church? If so, where?
The great missionary bishop of the Anglican Church in India, Leslie Newbigin, once wrote that the best evidence for believing the gospel in a highly indifferent, secular culture is a congregation of persons who display these “marks” of the Spirit on a daily basis./3/
A congregation! A church! Not simply a scattering of individuals hither, thither, and yon, but a community devoted to the Way.
It’s an old argument, of course. John Wesley, the leader of the Methodists, made a similar point two hundred years earlier. And Martin Luther and St. Augustine and the apostle Paul made it before him: When people see the church “living in sink” with God’s Spirit, they are more likely to come to faith.
On the other hand, when the church falls outside the workings of the Spirit, when it fails to live out the power and promise of Christ’s resurrection, it more often than not falls prey to the latest trend, or fad, or ideology, or philosophy. No longer is there anything unique about Christ’s body.
Sadly, the church in our world today is so tragically divided that it has become more and more difficult to see the marks of the Spirit. We simply take it for granted that the reason there are so many churches is to satisfy the spiritual needs of individuals with different tastes: Methodists and Baptists have become like franchises that exist to serve a basic kind food to a particular kind of demographic group!
What we so often fail to realize in this picture is that when the Holy Spirit created the church, the Spirit created a community that was to tell the world that apart from Christ our “needs” or “tastes” really do not make sense at all, that apart from the gospel our “needs” are really not what we thought they were (Jn. 15:6-7): seen in light of the gospel what I thought I needed I didn’t, and the medicine I really didn’t want to take I need to take, if I wanted to be made whole.
To a society built on the myth of self-reliance that’s not a popular message.
In fact, when we see the church simply as a voluntary organization comprised of “individuals” and not biblically as a community of the Spirit, gifted with the presence of Christ, we suddenly recognize features other than what God intended: that is, we can begin to act in ways that run contrary to the gospel, focusing on whatever “works” (a kind of runaway pragmatism), or on whatever “feels” good (a kind of Dr. Phil therapy session); or we can become captive to a political or religious ideology (as happened in Germany in 1930’s)./4/
On all of these counts there is a loss of substance of the gospel about the costs of discipleship (Lk. 14:27). Suddenly, the focus is not on Christ but on us.
Perhaps another way of approaching this is by asking the following questions: What do you look for in a church? Do you look for strong teaching? Do you look for authentic fellowship? Do you look for a congregation that is committed to serving others? Do you look for a church that challenges you to sacrifice and give and pray? Do you look for the biblical “marks of promise” that we hear about in our passage?
Several weeks ago I met with a gentleman from a church north of here. I learned that this particular church has numerous sports programs and a huge physical education complex. He shared with me how many people playing basketball and volleyball and involved in aerobics. And I couldn’t help but be impressed and a little jealous! But I thought: Are those the marks of the church: Yes? No? It’s a way to catch people, isn’t it? What do you think?
In the United Methodist Church there is a new report entitled “The Call to Action”; it has been commissioned by our Council of Bishops in an attempt to address the years of decline in the church.
In this report it states very clearly that a vital congregation will be known by the following “marks” or “features”: numerous small group ministries, solid children’s and youth ministries, strong outreach and mission programs, different styles of worship services, topical preaching, and long-term pastorates. Marks of the church? Yes? No? Sound promising? How are we doing?
Without going into specifics, I will only say that, regarding this report, I wish more was stated about the biblical marks of the church – that as Christians in the Wesleyan tradition we believe the church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”; that is, we believe the church is “the redemptive fellowship in which the Word of God is faithfully preached and the sacraments are duly administered; and that under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the church exists to build up the life of the believer for the redemption of the world”./5/
In other words, the church is more than simply a set of programs! Amen! It’s more than any one person, or place, or thing, or pastor! It’s more than a beautiful building!
And it’s that “more than” that makes the church so promising, that connects people with Christ…that brings hope and healing so that people can rebuild their lives…that invites people into God’s love and grace and service and fellowship and praise, and that challenges them to grow and give.
That promise! That faithful promise of devoting ourselves to being together in mission, with glad and generous hearts, praising God and following Christ, and having the goodwill of all the people (2:46-47).
And so, with glad and generous hearts, let us fulfill that mission as we share with and to give any as they have need (2:45; 46). Amen.
1. Thanks to Leonard Sweet for these insights; see the sermon info “On Your Mark” at www.HomileticsOnline.com (5/2/1993).
2. See “The Effortless Present” at www.HomileticsOnline.com for these insights (4/17/2005).
3. See Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), p. 227.
4. Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985). This book brings to light how the language of therapy and utilitarianism bring to light the empties of modern self-understanding and lack of depth in community.
5. “Confession of Faith” – Article V, The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2008).