Notes for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2011
By Rev. Craig A. Satterlee
Lutheran School of Theology
First Christian Church of Jerusalem - A
As Luke tells it, life at First Christian Church of Jerusalem
was most remarkable. The believers "devoted themselves
to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking
of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). Here, in a nutshell,
we find a description of an ideal Christian community, the
model church. When we read on, it gets even better:
|"Awe came upon everyone, because
many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.
All who believed were together and had all things in common;
they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute
the proceeds to all, as any had need. 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,
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" (Acts 2:43-47).
Wonders and signs, harmony and generosity -
this church did not need a week to pray for Christian unity;
it was united. This church was also "successful"
when it came to its mission. First Christian Church of Jerusalem
was an urban church that grew from a gathering of 120 people
to a congregation of more than three thousand members (Acts
1:15; 2:41). It had a staff of nineteen-twelve apostles plus
seven deacons. "And the success of the church, as we
soon discover, was that all of the believers (and not just
these nineteen) were doing the work of the ministry (see Eph.
4:11-13)."[i] Everyone was filled with awe because of the
many wonders and signs that were occurring in their midst.
Within this church, everyone had enough because people shared
generously with each other. Outside the church in the neighborhood,
the congregation enjoyed "the goodwill of all the people"
(Acts 2:47). Little wonder that we claim, "one in the
apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer"
as the vision for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
This is the church we want to be!
First Christian Church of Jerusalem - A
Yet, First Christian Church of Jerusalem is a far cry from
the church that so many Christians experience today. Rather
than creating a sense of awe at the Spirit's activity, the
"signs" that characterize many congregations and
denominations - disharmony and discord, withholding material
resources, often as a way of disagreeing, declining memberships
and a diminishing presence in contexts where the church is
needed most, including our cities - leave people both inside
and outside the church wondering in disbelief. Denominational
decisions and declarations deepen the divisions in Christ's
Body and even fracture the fellowship within Christian traditions.
Some congregations and denominations are so divided that praying
for the unity of the whole church strikes them as a luxury,
impossibility, wishful thinking, or a good idea whose time
has passed. Our experience of church may leave us wondering
whether First Christian Church of Jerusalem, at least as Luke
describes it in Acts, is too perfect to be relevant or even
Perhaps this is why Luke makes it clear that the Christian
community born on Pentecost was both real and human. Luke's
description of the idyllic communal life of the first believers
is followed by the first report of conflict within the church
(Acts 5:1-12). Two members, Ananias and Sapphira, deceitfully
withheld a portion of their wealth, were accused by Peter
of being filled with Satan rather than the Holy Spirit, and
were struck dead, so that "great fear seized the whole
church and all who heard of these things" (Acts 5:11).
And internal conflict continued. Peter's ministry to Gentiles
in Caesarea led the believers and apostles in Judea to criticize
him for going to the uncircumcised and eating with them. The
council at Jerusalem was convened after Paul and Barnabas
"had no small dissension and debate" with believers
from Judea who taught that people had to be circumcised in
order to be saved. Away from Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas's
disagreement over John Mark's participation in their ministry
became so sharp that Paul and Barnabas parted company.[ii]
As does the church that we love and serve, the early Christian
church had to face conflict and tension. Even as Acts celebrates
the ideal of Christian unity, it does so taking most seriously
the disagreements, conflict, and division that the early church-and,
by implication, the church in every age-faces. In fact, biblical
scholars and church historians see parallels between the divisions
of the earliest Christian communities and those of our own
time, including "struggles between churches over a diversity
of traditions and struggles within an individual church over
interpretations of the same tradition."[iii]
First Christian Church of Jerusalem - A
Sign of the Spirit's Power
So did the apostolic church actually enjoy the unity and community
described in Acts? Truth be told, the answer is unimportant.
Luke's description is not a historical record, an example
for us to follow, or a goal for us to achieve. Luke's description
is a sign, assurance, and vision of the Holy Spirit's presence
and power at work in the church. It is not an account of what
the first Christians did as a community, but a testimony to
what the Holy Spirit was doing within the Christian community.
Luke's description is a confident declaration that the Holy
Spirit is uniting the church. The Holy Spirit is creating
Christian unity. The Holy Spirit is making us one. Trusting
that the Holy Spirit is bringing the church together, forming
the church into the one body of Christ, frees us not only
to pray for Christian unity, but also to dare to live and
serve as those whom the Spirit of Christ and his resurrection
is making one. "Luke invites his readers not to cling
foolishly to an ideal that may never be fully realized, but
to be summoned by it
. Whoever stops dreaming (cf. 2:17)
and striving to make dreams come true stops counting on the
power of God's Spirit."[iv]
The first Christians could dare to dream and strive to make
dreams come true because of their experience of the power
of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit came upon
the apostles and worked in and through them to speak so that
those in Jerusalem heard the good news in his or her own language.
The believers might have devoted themselves to their Pentecost
experience, and focused on the past and how to experience
something like that again. Instead, "they devoted themselves
to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking
of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). In the same way
that Cleopas and his companion experienced the risen Christ
when the Scriptures were opened and bread was broken (Luke
24:13-33), so the early church experienced the apostles' teaching,
fellowship, breaking the bread and the prayers as ways the
Spirit is working to unite the church and make Christians
one. Confident that the Spirit continues to work in these
ways to unite the church and make Christians one, we, like
the first Christians, devote ourselves to these communal ways
of being Christian.
The Apostles' Teaching
"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching."
The first Christians devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching.
In other words, their central concern was Jesus. They devoted
themselves to the work, words and promises of Jesus. Jesus
chose the apostles to remember, bear witness to, teach about,
and keep alive the events and meaning of his ministry, particularly
Jesus' death and resurrection. This responsibility is so central
that, when the apostles chose a replacement for Judas, that
person must "have accompanied us during all the time
that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from
the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from
us--one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection"
(Acts 1:21, 22). This was "a learning, studying church."[v] In the earliest days of its life, despite
an experience as profound as the outpouring of the Spirit
on Pentecost and the need to respond to a rapidly expanding
faith community, the church was devoted to teaching and learning
about Jesus. As the early church remembered and shared about
Jesus, the believers experienced the presence of the risen
Christ, and the power of the Spirit to unite the church not
in one another, not in their ability to get along and agree,
but in Christ.
Today, congregational concerns, social issues, global situations,
life's questions, and decisions made by denominations sidetrack
the church and threaten its unity as they demand our devotion
and seek to reign as the cause or concern on which the church
is centered and grounded. Following Jesus' own example, we
learn that every issue needs to be addressed. To say otherwise
is to conclude that there are areas of life where Jesus has
no place. The early church reminds us that the Spirit works
as we make Jesus and not any other issue our first priority
and attempt to consider concerns from the perspective of Jesus'
words, work, promises, life, death and resurrection. And since
doctrines and positions were not set in stone when First Christian
Church in Jerusalem began its life together, this congregation
reminds us that the Spirit works as we converse, discern,
and discover Jesus together more than when we lecture, declare,
and define Jesus to each other. So confident are we of the
Spirit's power to make the church one that we pit other issues
and concerns into perspective and devote ourselves to the
apostles' teaching about Jesus.
"They devoted themselves to fellowship." From a
diverse assembly of people, "from every nation under
heaven" (Acts 2:5), the Spirit formed a united body of
believers. This "fellowship" was not a warm-hearted,
humanly initiated, brotherly and sisterly kind of love. Fellowship
was not based on emotions, or behaviors, or agreements on
issues. In fact, anxious concern for holding a threatened
group together led early Christianity to regard "what
was most private in the individual, his or her most hidden
feelings or motivations, those springs of action that remained
impenetrable to the group, 'the thoughts of the heart,' .
. . .as the source of tensions that threatened to cause fissures
in the ideal solidarity of the religious community."[vi]
Believing that the true heart was screened from human observation
but totally public to the gaze of God and the angels, the
church trusted the Holy Spirit to reveal the hidden things
of the heart when that was important, and concerned itself
with behavior rather than intention, with action rather than
contemplation. So the first Christians devoted themselves
to koinonia. They devoted themselves to what they held in
common. What they had in common was resurrection faith, faith
in Christ risen, whom, they were confident, could overcome
all material, societal and religious barriers and differences.
The fellowship created by the Spirit resulted in awesome "wonders
and signs," including that the believers "had all
things in common" (Acts 2:44). They sold their possessions
and distributed them to all.
Confident in the Spirit's power to unite the church, we come
together in fellowship based on what we hold in common - resurrection
faith in Jesus Christ. As Paul says, "Whatever is true,
whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is
any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things" (Philippians 4:8). We may keep
some of the thoughts of our hearts to ourselves and trust
the thoughts of others' hearts to God, so as not to hinder
the Spirit's work of making the church one. Rather than a
false unity, this is unity in Christ by the work of the Spirit,
which understands the difference between what is central and
what is not, between what changes and what does not, between
the convictions of an individual and the proclamation of the
The Breaking of Bread
"They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread."
Deep in our souls, we know the significance of eating together.
Eating together creates or identifies relationship, and so
eating together always involves inclusion and exclusion-some
people are welcome at table and others are not. In this regard,
the table fellowship of the earliest Christians was "worshipful"
because all were included. In keeping with Jewish practice,
the blessing over the meal made the table a holy place and
eating together something sacred. "Eating together is
a mark of unity, solidarity, and deep friendship, a visible
sign that social barriers which once plagued these people
have broken down."[vii]
The question of whether "the breaking of bread"
refers to the Eucharist or Lord's Supper is a matter of scholarly
debate. Nevertheless, Acts tells us that the believers daily
spent much time together in the temple, and they broke bread
at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts"
(Acts 2:46). This sounds like one understanding of the Eucharist-as
an anticipation of the messianic banquet and foretaste of
Jesus' promise that his followers would "eat and drink
at my table in my kingdom" (Luke 22:30).
I am always saddened at ecumenical worship services during
the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity because, while we can
open the Word and pray together, divisions prevent us from
breaking the bread together. So, while we cannot come together
at the communion table, perhaps we can trust the Spirit to
break down barriers as we come together around tables in fellowship
halls following worship and eat our food "with glad and
generous hearts" (Acts 2:46). Just as the Eucharist is
a foretaste of the messianic banquet, so these meals are a
foretaste of that day when the church, united in Christ, gathers
around his table to share the Lord's Supper. Confident in
the Spirit's power to make the church one, we are devoted
to breaking the bread that we can.
"They devoted themselves to the prayers." Confident
in the power of the Spirit to make the church one, so do we.
We pray for Christian unity. I sense that the earliest Christians
knew their need of God, their utter dependence upon God, in
ways that we have perhaps forgotten. I frequently hear prayers
and worship that ask God to permit us ("May we . . .
") or to assist us ("Help us to . . . "). For
example, I recently heard prayer petitions in which the response
was, "God, help us to renew the face of the earth."
God is our helper? Who's helping whom? We more honestly pray
asking God to bring the unity of the church and the reconciliation
of the world to Godself, because we know that we cannot. We
can ask God to include us, to include the church, in God's
own mission for the life of the world and stand ready to be
God's answer to our prayers. We also pray naming the ways
that we slow and obstruct the Spirit's work of uniting the
church and we ask God to forgive us.
|"To talk about the need for repentance
and turning from our deadly ways is just another way of
saying that the forces in our world that wish to destroy
God's plan are still with us. Although for us, Jesus'
death on the cross is the central manifestation of the
reality that God is making all things new, evil still
manages to find ways of trying to grind up the strange
freedom and joy of God-often by working through us and
our vested interests."[viii]
The Spirit Uniting the Church
Devoting ourselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42)
sounds like what we do when we ecumenically gather to worship
during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Rather than
a luxury, impossibility, wishful thinking, or a good idea
whose time has passed, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
is one way that we proclaim our confidence in the power of
the Spirit to make the church one. And so we devote ourselves
to the ways that the Spirit is at work bringing Christian
unity. We dare to dream and strive to make dreams come true.
We are confident in the power of the Spirit of Christ to bring
resurrection - the new life in which the church is one.
i. James Montgomery Boice, Acts: An
Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006),
ii. Acts 11:3; 15:1-35, 39.
iii. Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple:
The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New
Testament Times (New York, Paulist Press, 1979), pp. 162-163.
iv. David Schnassa Jacobsen and Günter Wasserberg, Preaching
Luke-Acts (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), p. 86.
v. James Montgomery Boice, Acts: An Expositional Commentary
(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), p. 56.
vi. Paul Veyne, A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome
to Byzantium, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1987), Vol. 1, p. 254.
vii. William H. Willimon, Acts, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary
for Preaching and Teaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988),
viii. David Schnassa Jacobsen and Günter Wasserberg,
Preaching Luke-Acts (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), pp.
Rev. Dr Craig A. Satterlee is an ordained minister of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Dr. Satterlee is professor
of homiletics at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and
dean of the ACTS Doctor of Ministry in Preaching Program.