“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” ― Acts 2:11
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” ― G.K. Chesterton
Although Luke’s description of the early church in Acts 2:41-47 is surely idealized, it is as important for us now as it was in the first century or the eighteenth of John Wesley. Rather than looking for the latest technique, technology, or celebrity consultant to save us, the heart of our work is doing what the church, at its best, has always done.
Acts 2:41 "So those who welcomed his message were baptized … 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved."
The church described here is a local fellowship of followers of Jesus with a self-sustaining structure dedicated to works of devotion and mercy. They do so in a spirit of gladness and generosity. Where these are found together, the church lives.
And the Lord added to their number …
As the narrative of Acts demonstrates, the first Christians were invitational people, repeatedly blown by the Spirit beyond the boundaries of their fears. Yet, part of the invitation is that what people saw and heard in them was attractive: “Awe came upon everyone,” and they inspired “the goodwill of all the people.” Today, We live in an individualistic, secular culture closed to the possibility of transcendence, where Christians are known for their judgments. Opening hearts with shared wonder and being an invitational community known by our love is 21st-century evangelism too.
1) Dedicated to works of devotion and mercy:
John Wesley spoke of the church's works of devotion to God (piety) and compassion for those in need (mercy) as the “means of grace.” It is “the walk that Jesus walked.” The means of grace are the time-tested ways Christian hearts have encountered the Spirit of God as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus. A well-meaning United Methodist Bishop, Bishop Reuben Job, recently rebranded Wesley’s third general rule from “attending the ordinance’s God” or “the means of grace” — to “staying in love with God.” The language is undoubtedly more winsome, but given our penchant for loving in our image, there is no shortcut to staying in love with all that God loves than the regular disciplined practice of “the means of grace.” The method in Methodism is inviting folks into these places and letting the Spirit do God's work in them.
2) With a spirit of gladness and generosity:
A constant emphasis in Wesley’s writing is that amid works of devotion and mercy, we meet God’s universal life-affirming, forgiving, and sustaining grace. When we accept and live into this gift, we grow in love or ‘holiness’ and share ‘the mind in Christ Jesus.” Such hearts will bear the marks of the spirit, Gal 5:22-23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentlenesses, and self-control.” The spirit is not in us if we are church with divisive and resentful hearts.
3) A local fellowship with a self-sustaining structure:
The radically communal structure of the church described in the book of Acts does not fit our day and age; church order changes to fit the social context. Elsewhere the NT notes historic offices in the church (pastors, bishops, elders, deacons, evangelists, teachers, etc.) that have been maintained in various ways in continuity with the earliest traditions. The point is, however, whether we like it or not, the church must have a competent, self-sustaining structure to persist; yet this “institution” only exists to serve the fellowship in worship and mission to the end of being people with Christ-like hearts. In his sermon On Zeal, John Wesley addresses the common problem of misplaced religious passion and points out that we should be most “zealous" for the things most central. Our order only exists for the sake of being shaped by the love of God for the love of humanity.
Select Quotes from John Wesley
On the church ordered for love:
7. Lastly. If true zeal be always proportioned to the degree of goodness which is in its object, then should it rise higher and higher according to the scale mentioned above; according to the comparative value of the several parts of religion. For instance, all that truly fear God should be zealous for the Church; both for the catholic or universal Church, and for that part of it whereof they are members. This is not the appointment of [mortals], but of God. He saw it was “not good for [humans] to be alone,” even in this sense, but that the whole body of his children should be “knit together, and strengthened, by that which every joint supplieth.” At the same time they should be more zealous for the ordinances of God; for public and private prayer, for hearing and reading the word of God, and for fasting, and the Lord’s Supper. But they should be more zealous for works of mercy, than even for works of piety. Yet ought they to be more zealous still for all holy tempers, lowliness, meekness, resignation: But most zealous of all, for that which is the sum and the perfection of religion, the love of God and [humanity]. From Sermon: On Zeal
On the means of grace:
By “means of grace” I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to [us], preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace. I use this expression, means of grace, because I know none better; and because it has been generally used in the Christian Church for many ages,—in particular by our own Church, which directs us to bless God both for the means of grace, and hope of glory; and teaches us, that a sacrament is “an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.”The chief of these means are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord’s supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of [Christ]: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying [God’s] grace to [human soul’s]. From Sermon: On The Means of Grace
On true religion and how we get there:
16. True religion is right tempers towards God and [people]. It is, in two words, gratitude and benevolence; gratitude to our Creator and supreme Benefactor, and benevolence to our fellow-creatures. In other words, it is the loving God with all our heart, and our neighbour as ourselves. 17. It is in consequence of our knowing God loves us, that we love [God] and love our neighbour as ourselves. Gratitude towards our Creator cannot but produce benevolence to our fellow-creatures. The love of Christ constrains us, not only to be harmless, to do no ill to our neighbour, but to be useful, to be “zealous of good works;” “as we have time, to do good unto all men;” and to be patterns to all of true, genuine morality; of justice, mercy, and truth. This is religion, and this is happiness; the happiness for which we were made. From Sermon: The Divine Unity of Being
What is Methodism?
“What is Methodism? What does this new word mean? Is it not a new religion?” This is a very common, nay, almost an universal, supposition; but nothing can be more remote from the truth. It is a mistake all over. Methodism, so called, is the old religion, the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive Church, the religion of the Church of England. This old religion … is “no other than love, the love of God and of all [humanity]; the loving God with all our heart, and soul, and strength, as having first loved us,—as the fountain of all the good we have received, and of all we ever hope to enjoy; and the loving every soul which God hath made, every [person] on earth as our own soul. This love is the great medicine of life; the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world; for all the miseries and vices of [humanity]. Wherever this is, there are virtue and happiness going hand in hand; there is humbleness of mind, gentleness, long-suffering, the whole image of God; and, at the same time, a ‘peace that passeth all understanding,’ with ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory.’ This religion of love, and joy, and peace, has its seat in the inmost soul; but is ever showing itself by its fruits, continually springing up, not only in all innocence, (for love worketh no ill to his neighbour,) but, likewise, in every kind of beneficence,—spreading virtue and happiness to all around it.” From Sermon: On Laying the Foundation of the New Chapel, Near City-Road, London
On our attitude towards non-Christians:
Let it be observed, I purposely add, to those that are under the Christian dispensation; because I have no authority from the word of God “to judge those that are without;” nor do I conceive that any [person] living has a right to sentence all the [non-Christian] and [Muslim] world to damnation. It is far better to leave them to [the One] that made them, and who is “the Father of the spirits of all flesh;” who is the God of [all others] as well as the Christians, and who hateth nothing that [God] hath made. But, meantime, this is nothing to those that name the name of Christ … unless they have new senses, ideas, passions, tempers, they are no Christians. However just, true, or merciful they may be, they are but Atheists still! From Sermon On Living Without God
On the problem of loving only those folks like ourselves.
Luke 10:37 Go and do thou in like manner—Let us go and do likewise, regarding every [person] as our neighbour who needs our assistance. Let us renounce that bigotry and party zeal which would contract our hearts, into an insensibility for all the human race, but a small number whose sentiments and practices are so much our own, that our love to them is but self-love reflected. With an honest openness of mind let us always remember that kindred between [one person and another], and cultivate that happy instinct whereby, in the original constitution of our nature, God has strongly bound us to each other. From Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament.
1 John 4:21. And this commandment have we from him—Both God and Christ; that he who loveth God, love his [fellow human being]—Every one, whatever his opinions or mode of worship be, purely because he is the child and bears the image of God. Bigotry is properly the want of this pure and universal love. A bigot only loves those who embrace his opinions, and receive his way of worship: and he loves them for that, and not for Christ’s sake. From Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament.
Quotes have been edited for modern language use.