This Sunday my congregation will begin to focus its attention on The Acts of the Apostles in our Sunday worship and various Bible studies. Early on in our journey with the early Church, Acts will tell us that the earliest converts to the faith “devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42). In its 1979 revision of The Book of Common Prayer, The Episcopal Church made this passage the first of five baptismal promises: “Will you continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers?”
The verb translated “devoted” is a participle that accentuates the continuing, persistent nature of their behavior. The King James version says, “they continued steadfastly.” The author of Acts wants us to know that these early believers were deeply committed to these aspects of their life together. These practices were the heart and soul of community life. This is what the Church does. The same verb is used earlier in Acts, when we are told that those who were gathered together “in a room upstairs,” waiting for God to make the next move, were “devoting themselves (continuing steadfastly) to prayer” (1:14).
Such persistence in these communal practices doesn’t come naturally to us, does it? We all want quick outcomes when it comes to our relationship with God. But eventually we find out that this journey with God and the church is a marathon, not a hundred yard dash. It is not uncommon for someone new to the church to be filled with unrealistic expectations about how the discipleship journey plays out. Like the first converts in Acts, new converts to the faith have often experienced a dramatic change in their life. Therefore, it is only natural for them to think that such drama is the order of the day in the church. However, what they soon find out is that this journey with God and the church is not all bells and whistles. Like any mature relationship it is built on steadfast commitment, not how we feel on any given day.
For example, if you have ever tried to maintain a daily discipline of prayer, you know that boredom, frustration and distraction are the order of the day. Oh yes, there are times when our prayer is moving and revelatory, but this is the exception, not the rule. Most people who begin a daily practice of prayer eventually throw in the towel because they conclude that it just doesn’t work. Most people who commit themselves to regular Sunday worship eventually bail out. It was a good experience in the beginning, but then it was just the same old thing year after year and it didn’t fix everything in my life that was broken. For some, golf, tennis, soccer, dance, running—the list is endless—take priority over Sunday worship. And for an increasing number of people, especially working parents with children, getting a whole family up and ready is just one more day of work. The rat race has taken its toll. Sleeping late and just resting is so much more appealing.
What the author of Acts wants us to imagine is that these practices are the key to everything. Immersing ourselves in the Apostles’ teaching in scripture and the Creeds, being deeply connected to a fellowship of believers, breaking bread together around dinner tables and altars, and prayer are all about encountering the one who sustains us and leads. And, of course, that is what we need the most. Neglecting these practices eventually leads us to rely primarily on our own resources and that is always a recipe for anxiety, if not disaster.
Keep at it!