THE REASON THE CHURCH GATHERS
Written by Doug Ponder on February 3, 2013
Zooming Out and Zooming In
There I was, standing in the Austrian Alps, staring at snow peaked mountains and vibrantly green valleys, wishing that I owned a better camera. The view was stunning, but through my the small hole in my disposable Kodiak, it didn’t look very impressive. Thankfully, one of my friends handed me their camera with a panoramic lens. Not only did his camera reveal much more of the scenery than mine did, it captured more than even my eyes could take in at one time. I had no idea that photographs could be so wide!
Then we switched to his telescopic lens, zooming in to snap shots of trees on neighboring mountains and fields of flowers in the valley below. The contrast between the panoramic view and the telescopic view as incredible. With one lens it felt like the mountains stretched forever; with the other it seemed as if they were close enough to touch.
This passage of Scripture is a little bit like that. Luke, the author, gives us both a panoramic view and a telescopic view of the ongoing life of the church.
The Panoramic View: The Mission of God
Luke begins with a long list of people and places that he and Paul visited as they were returning from a missionary journey to spread the good news about Jesus. Notice that in this list are all sorts of people: Greeks, Macedonians, Turks, Asians, and Jews. The ancient world was not known for its tolerance, and many of these cultures didn’t get along. But here they were, not just tolerating each other, but cooperating with each other for the sake of the gospel. More than that, this should remind us of a scene we’ve encountered before. Just before Jesus ascended into the heavens, he told his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit’s arrival in power. Then he told them, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Don’t you see? All those people from all those places demonstrate that Jesus’ words were coming true.
Of course, rescuing the nations was the business of God all along. That was the trouble with Israel. They had been given the special task of being a light to the nations, but instead of illuminating the character of God, they had mostly dragged his name through the mud. Then came Jesus, the light of the world. He succeeded where Israel failed. More than that, he rescued Israel (and all who followed him in faith) from their slavery to sin and bondage to corruption and death. That’s what God has been about since the beginning. He’s rescuing a people for himself who will be eager to do what is good (Titus 2:14).
The Telescopic View: The Church at Troas
Against the backdrop of that scenery, Luke then zooms in to show the life of a small church in Troas, a coastal city in the area of (present-day) northern Turkey. While he stayed there, Paul joined them at a worship gathering “on the first day of the week” (Sunday, the same day of the week on which Jesus had been resurrected). In the middle of the service a young man named “Lucky” (that is the translation of his Greek name, Eutychus) fell asleep in the window and plummeted three stories to the ground below. Lucky for him (pun intended), he wasn’t dead. Or at least, if he did die, he didn’t stay dead. Paul said, “His life is still in him” (Acts 20:10), so they all went back upstairs to eat a meal and take communion together, celebrating the resurrection of the one who really did die and rise again on our behalf.
What is most remarkable about this story is not the incident with the boy falling from the window. Indeed, they don’t even let his near death experience interrupt their worship service. Rather, what is truly remarkable is that this church’s worship service is almost identical to one that we’ve witnessed earlier in the book of Acts. They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread (which meant eating a meal and celebrating communion), and, presumably, to prayer (Acts 20:7-8; cf. Acts 2:42-47).
In other words, despite the geographic distance and cultural differences between Troas and Jerusalem, these churches are found worshipping Jesus in fundamentally all the same ways. It’s hardly by chance, of course. There were good reasons that their worship services mirrored each other.
Why the Church Gathers
To start with, the apostles’ teaching was valued because they were men who had spent time with Jesus. They imparted his words to people who didn’t yet have written copies of his life and teachings. Today, we don’t have apostles who have spent personal time with Jesus. Instead, we have their eyewitness accounts recorded for us in the books of the New Testament. This is why preaching continues to enjoy a certain priority of place in most churches. Because we value the gospel, it makes sense that we devote a large amount of our worship time to preaching of the good news from every page of Scripture. After all, the faith that Jesus calls us to only comes through hearing the message about him (Rom. 10:17).
The people of the church at Troas also dedicated themselves to fellowship. The word “fellowship” was short hand for talking about community and sharing life together. Often out of love for each other Christians were (and still are) motivated to sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to those who have needs (Acts 2:44-45).
The church also took communion together, apparently on a regular basis. The bread symbolizes Jesus’ body, which was broken for us, and the cup symbolizes the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (cf. Matt. 26:26-29). Some Christians call this sacrament “the Lord’s Supper,” others call it the “Eucharist” (which means, “to give thanks”), and others call it “communion.” But the real beauty of communion isn’t found in its name. It’s found in what it pictures. People from all walks of life—young, old, new followers of Jesus, mature followers of Jesus, men, women, and people of various ethnicities—all join together to publically proclaim that their identity isn’t found in their race, class, or gender, but in the sacrifice of Jesus on their behalf.
(By the way, the other of the two sacraments, or signs, that Jesus gave to his church was the sacrament of baptism. Baptism serves as a way to publicly set apart Jesus’ followers, kind of like a badge of membership that tells the world you identify with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus on your behalf.)
The reason church at Troas gathered together, and the reason all churches continue to gather (the zoomed in perspective), is directly related to what God is doing all across the world (the panoramic perspective). Namely, because God is rescuing people and reconciling them to himself through Jesus, Christians everywhere still gather regularly to remember their need for Jesus and to rejoice in the mercy and the grace that we’ve been shown.
For Your Consideration
1. How is your life changed by knowing that God’s primary plan (or mission) is to rescue the nations through the gospel of Jesus?
2. When you take communion (the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist) in your church, do you see yourself as being part of a community of people who have nothing to cling to except Jesus?
3. If you consider yourself to be a follower of Jesus, have you made your faith public through baptism? If you haven’t, talk with one of the pastors or elders in your church about your desire to obey Jesus’ in this area. If you’ve already been baptized, do you know of someone who hasn’t that could use your encouragement?
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.