Let me begin by going right to the point, which is the simple claim that Acts 2:42 describes the basic movements of Christian community. The verse reads this way: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” There you have it, the basic movements required for Christian community: devotion to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, breaking bread and prayer. If we do these things we’ll be a ‘church’ in the full, deep sense of the word.
In the early part of the 20th century a young French marine named Georges Hébert was posted on the island of Martinique. While he was there a volcano erupted with disastrous results for the populace. Hébert was a part of the rescue effort. That experience convinced him of the importance of well-rounded physical fitness. He believed one should stay fit in order to be ready to serve. Hébert looked for models of this sort of thing—of people prepared for just about any sort of physical challenge. He found them in various indigenous communities. These people, he thought, had a natural fitness that prepared them for all manner of unexpected challenges. Hébert then developed a ‘system’ of training designed to produce the same results. His system became known as the “natural method.”
In Hébert’s observation human motion was composed of ten basic types of movement: walking, running, jumping, crawling, climbing, balancing, throwing, lifting, fighting and swimming. If you can do those things well you can excel at whatever physical challenges come your way. The method of training Hébert advocated looked a lot like moving through an obstacle course. If Hébert was your gym teacher you would maybe run on a trail, balance on rocks, lift a log, climb a tree, wrestle and swim in a pond. The idea, again, is that if you practice and master the ten basic movements you’re prepared for just about anything.
That’s the one side of the analogy. Now let’s turn to the other.
The verse I quoted above comes from the second chapter of Acts. That chapter begins with the followers of Jesus holed up in Jerusalem, where quite unexpectedly they heard a great wind and saw tongues of fire appear. The Spirit of God, the Spirit of the recently absent Jesus, became evidently present. What does that mean? It means God was there, right there! Not in body, not incarnate, but present nonetheless. Think of that—the power of creation, the power that raised Jesus from the dead, the presence of that power was among them in a room in Jerusalem.
For some of them the experience would have brought to mind a story from Numbers 11. That passage tells the story of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. They had been there long enough for the lack of good food to fray their patience. In response to their complaints Numbers 11:31 tells us “A wind went out from the LORD.” The wind brought quail. But quail weren’t the only new arrivals. The passage also tells us that it the LORD descended among the gathered elders. Some of them prophesied. In fact two of them wouldn’t shut up. Joshua complained to Moses and asked him to make them stop. But here’s how Moses responded: “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit in them.” The story of the quail and the Spirit was an ancient legend by the time the followers of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem. But there it was, the LORD’s Spirit in the whole group. It must have been something of a relief. The old stories were true! God was the sort to show up, and God was still in business.
In the story chronicled in Acts 2 the believers in Jerusalem left the building and started speaking in the street. This all happened during the celebration of Pentecost, a time of year when Jewish men journeyed to Jerusalem and celebrated the gift of Torah and the wheat harvest. And here’s the thing, the pilgrims each heard the speakers in their native tongue—and that demanded an explanation.
It was Peter who offered it. He said that what they were witnessing was the fulfillment of the old words of the prophet Joel. He said the prophet’s words were coming true right then and there. The key he said was the Nazarene, the one whom the crowd had killed not long before, the one whom God had raised from the dead.
It all made sense to the Jewish pilgrims. The whole thing came together in Peter’s explanation, and they were “cut to the heart.” “What should we do?” they asked. “Repent and be baptized,” was Peter’s prescription. God doesn’t leave us as we are—that’s a basic Christian conviction. Repentance is a part of God not leaving us as we are. To repent is to admit that there are elements of death in our lives. To repent is to acknowledge that we aren’t as alive as we could be. To repent is to recognize that God offers us something better. And there’s one more thing, repentance is a handy test of the vitality of our faith. When have we last responded to a prompting toward repentance and change?
Peter’s audience responds in repentance and many are baptized. That is, they join Jesus’ followers—they enter Christian community. This takes us again to Acts 2:42 and the devotion of this group to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to breaking bread and to prayer—the basic movements, the basic skills of Christian community. We could say that we’re lucky. Georges Hébert requires us to learn 10 forms of movement: running, jumping, climbing, balancing, etc. Being a member of a Christian community requires us to learn just four. Let’s think about these a bit more.
The first movement—devotion to the apostles’ teaching. The apostles taught that Jesus was the messiah. They taught that the power he demonstrated was the same as the power that freed Israel from slavery. They taught that this was the same power that dwelt in their midst. Over time this teaching became encapsulated in one of the central things Christians believe about God, that God is triune. In Jesus we truly see God, and through the Spirit God is present among us. Being a Christian and belonging to a Christian community is not mostly about believing a list of things, but these claims do undergird our life together. The church is not a generic community; it is one with specific things to teach about God, the world and what it means to be a human creature.
The second movement—devotion to the apostles’ fellowship. The early church spent time with those who had encountered Jesus directly. They didn’t just take the ideas or the way of life and go their separate ways. They were devoted to fellowship. The apostles aren’t with us anymore; we’re a couple thousand years late for that. Nevertheless, the fellowship of the apostles remains the fraternity of the universal church. This is one the reasons that we need to visibly express Christian unity.
The third movement—breaking bread together. What a wonderfully tangible thing to do—to eat, to share a meal. Later in the passage we read that these early believers held everything in common. Surely this is an extension of this breaking bread together. In eating together they shared their resources even as they re-dramatized the Lord’s Supper. Some Christians practice this common life with equal rigor: many monks do, the Hutterites do, members of the Bruderhof do and so do some intentional communities. Most of us though believe the core principle is that we recognize our things are loaned to us by God in trust. Because of that we joyfully share and support others.
Mutual support is one outworking of the devotion to sharing a common meal. Another is sharing our lives with each other, even if that means crossing long-standing social divides. It means that the social divisions that segment the world and cause violence find no place among us. When we break bread together we seek to end the divisions prompted by ethnicity, economic disparity, gender, age, nationality. When we feast on Jesus’ body and blood (sounds weird doesn’t it?) we are united in him.
The fourth movement—prayer. It was common for Jews in the first century to pray twice a day at the synagogue, once early in the morning and once in mid-afternoon. Christians share in this emphasis on prayer. In prayer we are caught up in the divine communion. It’s a bit like getting into a party, a big-time celebration in which you really have no right to participate. The divine conversation is like that: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier in eternal, loving conversation. When we pray we join that eternal conversation. The Spirit prompts us and gives us words, we are invited through our union with Jesus, and we speak to the creator and origin of all things. Christian communities pray.
The basic movements of Christian community: devotion to the good news of the apostles, participation in the unity of that new community, sharing life with each other and prayer. If God will grace us with the ability to do those four things we will experience Christian community.
Think back to the ideas of George Hébert. If you’ve ever seen someone practicing parkour on a city street, you’re seeing his influence. What practitioners of parkour can do is amazing: climbing hand over hand up drainpipes, leaping from railings, vaulting fences, balancing on the edges of tall buildings—amazing individual movements linked together with grace. If our churches can increasingly weave these four movements into the life we share we can expect something amazing to result. We probably shouldn’t pretend to the infant church in Jerusalem. That was a specific moment in history. We aren’t there, we aren’t them, now isn’t then. But it is the same Spirit at work among us our communities should exhibit competency with the same movements: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” May it also be so of us.