Ordinary Church: The Patient Ferment of the Early Church

Acts 3:11-26 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

11 While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished. 12 When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites,[a] why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? 13 The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant[b] Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. 14 But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, 15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16 And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus[c] has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

17 “And now, friends,[d] I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18 In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah[e] would suffer. 19 Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, 20 so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah[f] appointed for you, that is, Jesus, 21 who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. 22 Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own people[g] a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you. 23 And it will be that everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be utterly rooted out of the people.’ 24 And all the prophets, as many as have spoken, from Samuel and those after him, also predicted these days. 25 You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ 26 When God raised up his servant,[h] he sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.”

We are down to our last two sermons from the book, “Ordinary Church: A Long and Loving Look” by Joseph Beach. This week we are looking at the chapter entitled, “The Patient Ferment of the early church” and Beach admits that he borrowed this tile from a book written Alan Kreider. Beach writes that Kreider in his book used the examples of how the process of slow aging certain beverages or fermenting, creates unique properties and characteristics in alcoholic beverages. The church began in an unusual way compared to what we know today in regards to growth.

The 3rd chapter of Acts is not unusual; in fact, it is ordinary in the way that the church spread. Prior to the reading for today in the first verse of chapter 3 a man is brought to the synagogue daily to ask for alms. In other words he was a beggar and others might have profited off his inability to walk because they brought him there. He could not do it himself and each day people gathered for prayer around 3:00 p.m. he would beg for money. On this particular day two men walked past this beggar named Peter and John. He asked for alms and told the man to look at him in the eye. He then said that he had no silver or gold but what I have I give you is in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, now stand up and walk. Peter and John picked this man up by the arms and his legs and ankles were made strong and he was able to walk. He jumped up and down and hung on to them as they entered the synagogue making a big fuss about what had happened.

Obviously all the people gathered around to find out what was going on. Then Peter preaches a simple sermon in which he tells that they did not do it, but it was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who healed the man they all knew that couldn’t walk. He tells how the Son of Man named Jesus was handed over to Pontius Pilate and crucified. It was the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that made the man well. Even thought you did not know what you were doing when you handed Jesus over to be crucified, you can now be forgiven of those sins. Therefore, you must repent and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out. This Jesus was the servant that was foretold by the prophets all the way from Samuel until today. “When God raised up this servant he sent him to you, to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” (3:26)

It is the simple messages of people who are in need, finding God and sharing God with those who come to hear God’s Word. The early church was not concerned with numbers. They did not have ushers count the people in attendance that has to then be recorded and sent off to General Assembly at the end of the year. Yes, we have to do that, so when you do not come we know it by our counts and the papers that you write your name on.

The truth of the matter is we are consumed with wanting to know how many people came to church. Then we compare that number with all of our buddies at the coffee shop to gauge how we are doing. The weeks when we have bigger crowds I see you looking around and counting the people and then you compare it with the ushers to make sure we got it right. In our consumerist society called America we live for this. We want to be the biggest and the best church around. We want to be affiliated with the winners in town. What better way is there to know if we won or not unless we keep score. Right, we play to win the game, not just show up and hope for a tie. Let me be the first to tell you that I am that guy—I hate to lose. Every Tuesday morning I check the pad in the back to see how many were here and I am either happy or I stew and fret about it all week.

Beach reminds us that the American way is not the patient ferment of the church that God calls us to. ““The key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience.” During the first few centuries of the church’s unfathomable survival and growth, the Christian communities showed almost zero interest in “immediate results.”

Rachel Held Evans said, “The church’s calling is to do the things she has always done and to be what she has always been (word, sacrament, liturgy, Holy Communion, baptism, fellowship, praise, prayer).” But that took too long and it was not flashy enough nor did it give rapid growth. You can’t be a Saddle Back or Willow church with patience and slow growth.

There were no business strategies, no vision statements, no five-year plans, no leadership conferences, and no marketing plans. Just ordinary local congregations – patient enough to trust God to cause his church to ferment, grow, survive, and thrive – in God’s way, in God’s power, and in God’s time.

Brian Zahnd said it this way, “Salvation is a kind of belonging… if the Jesus we follow doesn’t lead us into the community of other followers, we are following a mostly made-up Jesus, a manufactured Jesus designed to accommodate the modern cult of “me.”

Beach calls it the McDonald’s effect. He writes, “A manufacturer of “playlands” explains why fast food operators build them: “Playlands bring in children, who bring in parents, who bring in money.” I’ve heard pastors say the same thing. The basic thinking behind fast food is basically the same thinking underlying the church growth movement: endorse the culture’s values, especially the values of quick, easy, convenient, and uniform. You must cater to the customer’s “felt needs,” present yourself as a “trusted friend” who cares and, by all means, communicate professionalism, cleanliness, and safety. The same kind of thinking that has wiped out small businesses, obliterated regional differences, and spread identical stores throughout the country is the same kind of thinking that has permeated the American church. Almost every facet of American life has now been franchised or chained. The key concept in the fast food industry is uniformity. As I visit churches around the country, I am seeing more and more “uniformity” in the church world as well. It seems as if everybody is singing the same songs in the same way, preaching with the same style, and building the same kinds of buildings in the same kinds of neighborhoods, using the same marketing approaches.”

We have a choice to make in our churches today. We can continue down the consumerist road of racing to try to be the biggest and the best or we can learn to ferment a little. Slow down, stop worrying about what the other churches are doing and listen to the will of the Holy Spirit. It does not mean that we have less work to do and we can sit back and do nothing. In fact, it takes more work with individuals in listening and learning how we can be the hands and feet of Christ in a consumerist world.

It is a crazy thing called stewardship. We pledge to take care of one another through thick and thin. We promise to be the church not a neon light that flashes notices about how great we think we are. Being a part of a family church is where we grow and learn to love one another as Jesus commanded us to do. Next week we will look at being stewards of what we have been given and how we are called to share those blessings. Amen.


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