Selections on New Creation Week 4
By Dr. Kevin Watson
Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies, Candler School of Theology, Emory University
Read this week’s Scripture: Acts 2:42–47
My experience in seminary was dramatically changed for the better by a simple invitation into deeper community. A friend invited me to join his accountability group. He handed me an eighteenth century document written by John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) that described the purpose and outline of the weekly meeting, which was called a band meeting. It took me several months to be willing to join a group where I would answer questions like “What sins have you committed since our last meeting?” I can still vividly remember the first time I attended the group. I was scared and very aware of feeling vulnerable, but I am so glad I joined the group!
Looking back, that group was where I was reminded of just how amazing God’s grace really is, where I was encouraged to grow in holiness, and where I received Scripture’s promise of forgiveness through the words of a brother in Christ. This experience awakened in me a desire for deep Christian community and showed the possibilities for growth in Christ that come from investing in one another’s lives.
Have you experienced this kind of community? I suspect that there is something in each of us that hungers to be known, to be loved, and to gather together with others to pursue our faith — not in isolation, but together as a family created by the Holy Spirit.
A vision for this kind of community is found in Acts 2:42–47. Immediately following the promised and anticipated outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, this text describes the community of faith that was formed by those who responded to Peter’s invitation to “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). For many contemporary readers, this vision for Christian community is at the same time enticing and intimidating.
The experience of the earliest Christians immediately after Pentecost may seem to be beyond the reach of contemporary Christianity. In this text, Christians were devoted to the teaching of those who were sent by Jesus himself. And they were devoted to each other through table fellowship and prayer. They also experienced God’s transforming presence in their midst through the miraculous signs and wonders performed by the apostles. They shared their lives and their livelihood with one another, even to the point of giving up possessions in order to provide for the needs of others. Seeming to anticipate the objection that this seems nice but would never work, the text concludes, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (2:47).
Acts 2:42–47 also offers a corrective to many contemporary approaches to discipleship, as it is soaked through with community. Today the invitation to receive the gift of faith in Christ and the infilling of the Holy Spirit is often offered and received on individual terms. Individual people are asked if they will follow Jesus, and too often Christian discipleship is seen to be a private matter. But this is not the vision for Christian discipleship offered in Acts 2. The text is filled with words like “believers,” “themselves,” “community,” “shared,” “everyone,” “united,” “they,” and “together.” These words repeatedly emphasize that the Christian life is not lived in isolation from others. But was an emphasis on community for Christian discipleship a quirk of the early church? Not at all!
The first eighty years of American Methodism, to give but one example, represent one of the most explosive growths in the history of world Christianity. And this movement was from its beginnings self-consciously focused on helping individuals find reconciliation with God and with one another. The mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church was “to reform the continent, and to spread scriptural holiness over these lands.” [Author’s Note 1] For John Wesley, the key figure of early Methodism, scriptural holiness was inherently communal. Indeed, from the beginning of the time that Wesley began to take his faith seriously, he seemed to instinctively gather people together in small groups in order to focus on the ways in which they were living their lives in light of their Christian commitments.
As the revival gained momentum, Wesley relatively quickly pulled together the best practices he had experienced in various contexts into one coherent approach to small group formation. A key insight of Wesley’s was that discipleship (learning how to follow Jesus Christ) does not happen in isolation. As he said in an oft-quoted phrase: “’Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social, no holiness but social holiness.” [Author’s Note 2] By this Wesley meant that people do not become holy in isolation from others.
As a result, small group formation was at the very center of early Methodist spirituality. Early Methodism was essentially an association of small groups, with the same people often participating in more than one kind of group. The two key groups in early Methodism were the class meeting and the band meeting. Classes were groups of about seven to twelve people. They were co-ed and were organized primarily based on where people lived. The key question of the class meeting was “How does your soul prosper?” This question has often been rephrased by contemporary Methodist scholars as “How is your life in God?” or “How is it with your soul?” [Author’s Note 3] Classes met weekly and were, for decades, a requirement for membership in Methodism.
The second small group in early Methodism was the band meeting. Bands were more intense and required more vulnerability than did the class meeting. The band meetings typically had between five to seven members, and they were divided based on gender and marital status. The key focus of the band meetings was answering the question “What sins have you committed since our last meeting?” The purpose of confessing sins to each other was not to shame one another, but to find freedom from guilt and healing of sin in obedience to James 5:16.
Small groups were important to Wesley because he saw them bear fruit in helping people find faith in Christ and grow in holiness. My experience with being in a band meeting in seminary is one of many examples of this. Wesley also insisted that small groups were essential for Christian discipleship because their benefits were found in the very beginnings of Christianity:
Upon reflection I could not but observe, this is the very thing which was from the beginning of Christianity. In the earliest times, those whom God had sent forth ‘preached the gospel to every creature,’ and […] ‘the body of hearers,’ were mostly either Jews or heathens. But as soon as any of these were so convinced of the truth as to forsake sin and seek the gospel salvation, they immediately joined them together, took an account of their names, advised them to watch over each other, and met these catechumens […] apart from the congregation, that they might instruct, rebuke, exhort, and pray with them and for them, according to their several necessities. [Author’s Note 4]
Acts 2:42–47 was one of the texts that Wesley almost certainly had in mind when he observed that small group formation was “the very thing which was from the beginning of Christianity.” This text immediately follows the account of Pentecost, which concludes, “and that day about three thousand persons were added” (Acts 2:41b). In Acts 2, reconciliation with God leads to a community that practices newfound faith and celebrates this reconciliation. The church created by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost is communal from start to finish. The community of faith is so important in Acts 2 that one could hardly separate the faith of the individual from that of the community.
So how is Christian discipleship communal? In Acts 2, discipleship involves a corporate devotion to the basic content of the Christian faith, described as “devot[ing] themselves to the apostles’ teaching,” or catechism (2:42). This aspect of Christian discipleship is perhaps given the most attention in contemporary Christianity. In fact, it is often the primary focus of the energy of local churches. Sermons and Sunday school classes are both typically focused on presenting the basic content of the Christian faith to those who would be disciples of Jesus Christ.
And yet if most church communities are honest with themselves, their emulation of the community of faith found in the early church does not go much deeper than the beginning of 2:42. However this community did more than study together occasionally. Their commitment to each other was much deeper! And isn’t deeper community what many of us are desperately seeking?
It is often said that the deepest revelation of a person’s priorities is how they spend their time and their money. The way that the Christians in this text spent their time and their money shows the depth of their commitment to one another.
The text repeatedly emphasizes the simple fact that these Christians were with each other. We read that “all who believed were together” (2:44). We are also told that they met together “day by day” (2:46—47). They prayed together, and they even ate together in each other’s homes. Being a member of this community involved a significant investment of time.
And it gets even more intimate: they shared not only food, but also their possessions. They were not only together, but they “had all things in common” (2:44) and “they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all” (2:45). Being a member of this community involved surrendering one’s right to individual ownership for the greater good of the community.
Acts 2:42–47 reveals a depth of community that may seem compelling but impossible to some, and perhaps even irresponsible or dangerous to others. It certainly challenges the pervasive individualism in Western Christianity that is the air many of us breathe. For contemporary readers, the text challenges a romanticized notion of community that wants friendship, support, encouragement, and fun without any cost, inconvenience, or commitment. And the concluding verses provide a timely reminder that community requires investment of time and resources.
But the text is also captivating. We are not told that the individual members of the community are mourning the loss of their possessions and free time. On the contrary, we read that together they “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” (2:47).
Acts 2 provides a needed reminder that Christian discipleship is not only about reconciliation with God; it also focuses on reconciliation with others. In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is asked by one of the Pharisees “which commandment in the law is the greatest,” he responds, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36–40). In the Gospel of Matthew, then, Jesus weaves love of God together with love of neighbor as the greatest commandments.
In the Gospel of Luke it is not Jesus but a lawyer who gives this summary of the law. Jesus then responds, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28). The law expert, “wanting to justify himself,” asks for a definition of who his neighbor is. Jesus responds by telling the story of a man who was beaten on a road from Jerusalem to Jericho and was found by a priest and a Levite who both “passed by on the other side.” Then a Samaritan found the man. He did not pass by on the other side, but took pity on him. He bandaged his wounds, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The text says that the next day he gave the innkeeper money to continue caring for the injured man (10:30–37).
The Samaritan didn’t only stop for a few minutes to express compassion until someone else came along. He cared for the man until the next day. And when he did leave, he left further money to continue to provide for the injured man’s care. Time. Money. And Luke’s audience would not have missed the scandal that it was a Samaritan, a group at odds with the Jews at the time, who was the one who loved his neighbor.
This is particularly interesting in a discussion of Acts because biblical scholars think that Luke and Acts were written by the same author. In Luke, Jesus pushes against any barriers that prevent reconciliation between those created in the image of God — even between groups that have long considered each other enemies. And given Luke’s connection to Acts, the story of the Samaritan would have been very familiar to the first Christians who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42).
Acts 2:42–47 provides a glimpse into the kind of community that many of us are yearning for and that is possible by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a community that is reconciled to God and to one another. The Spirit drew together those who heeded Peter’s call to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. They were reconciled with God into a community that could be described with words like “shared,” “united,” and “together.” This is a community that brings people together across boundaries of language, culture, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and class. In Acts 2, reconciliation with God is followed by reconciliation with one another. Ultimately, this kind of community is created by the work of the Holy Spirit, but we are graciously given a role to play. Like the first Christians, we can gather together to (in Wesley’s words) “watch over one another in love.” [Author’s Note 5] Being a part of this kind of community is one of life’s richest gifts.
May we be willing to invest our time and resources into such community, and may the Holy Spirit graciously knit us together to grow in our love and knowledge of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in our love for one another.
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