Category: Acts (page 1 of 10)

From Scattered to Gathered: Part 2

This Sunday at Central will mark the tenth consecutive Sunday we have worshiped together online only. One more time we’re going to livestream the “assembly” from a nearly empty worship center to our scattered church participating in their homes via the marvel of the internet. We’ve added stage lights and changed the camera angles, we’ve manipulated the sound of the praise teamĀ  and paid careful attention to start and stop times, we’ve incorporated more videos of our own people from their own settings and been as interactive as we know how.

But it’s just not the same.

Christian author Brian Zahnd writes: “Virtual church is like a virtual beach vacation — it’s just not the same thing. A real beach vacation means sand between your toes. And real church means human contact and sacraments.”

Our online offering is pretty good. But it’s no day at the beach. As a church, we’re not gathered right now. We’re scattered. And, I’ll tell you, it’s not my favorite thing. But it’s not the worst thing, either. Because the Church is God’s scattered people, too.

Yours is not the first church that’s ever been forced to scatter. And this is not the first time in history the Church as a whole has been unable to gather. In fact, it happened early on. The very first church, that Pentecost church in Jerusalem, got scattered pretty quick. Stephen was stoned in Jerusalem for preaching the resurrection…

“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church (assembly) in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church (gathering).” ~Acts 8:1-3

Randy Harris says if the Church only knows how to be Church in mass gatherings, then it was never really the Church in the first place. And I agree.

We are, all of us, each of us, saved by God in Christ and called by God in Christ for the sake of others. The Church of God exists as people on a mission, men and women saved and called by God to join God’s acts of salvation for others. And sometimes our assemblies have to be broken up by outside forces, we’ve got to be dispersed in order to remember that the Church is God’s scattered people, too. And he can work in powerful ways whether we’re worshiping together in the same rooms on Sunday mornings or not.

“Those who had been scattered preached the Word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. So there was great joy in that city.” ~Acts 8:4-8

Think about those followers of Jesus in Jerusalem who had witnessed amazing demonstrations of the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. The worship services at that church must have been over the top awesome. Peter’s preaching the Word as an eyewitness to the resurrected Christ. People are being healed. People are speaking in tongues. The Holy Spirit is there in visible pillars of fire. They’re singing 19-verses of Just As I Am because hundreds of people are being baptized every Sunday. And no announcements! That’s an awesome worship experience!

And they were forced to give it up. But the church didn’t shut down. The church actually expanded.

“Those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch… telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” ~Acts 11:19-21

During the early weeks of the Covid-19 shutdowns, the most loving thing we could do for our neighbors and our community was to stay apart. To not meet. Which is so strange because God always calls us to community, to be together, to be present with each other — bodily, physically, face-to-face present.

But look what’s happened to us. All of us have been forced to not just talk, sing, and pray about the mission. We’ve had to live it. You can’t lean on the crutch, “Well, of course I’m a Christian! I go to church!” No, you don’t. Not right now. And our hearts and our lives have been refocused for the past ten weeks on the mission. We’ve been given the time, space, and circumstances to actually do what we claim to do, what we really want to do. We’re serving our neighbors, we’re checking on the elderly, we’re providing money and meals to the needy, we’re reaching out to folks we know who live alone.

Your church has not been closed, it’s been expanded into all of your neighborhoods. We’re paying closer attention to the vulnerable and weak, we’re all thinking more about the marginalized and compromised. And the Bible says if we’re not doing those things, then our worship stinks and it’s not doing us or God any good anyway.

Worshiping online from our homes has brought other unexpected blessings. Some of us have become more acutely aware that Christians all over the world are doing the exact same things we’re doing. We’re all singing awkwardly by ourselves in our homes. We’re all eating and drinking the communion meal with whatever we can find — Cool Ranch Doritos and a bottle of Pedialyte? Sure! It works! All disciples of Jesus are doing the same things right now, every Sunday, and we feel more closely connected to the global Church.

God has done some very surprising and glorious things while we’ve been scattered. And we praise him for that. He’s helped us be creative. He’s opened our eyes to people who need the Gospel. He’s stirred our hearts to be more generous and kind.

But God’s Church is at a handicap when we’re not meeting together. It’s part of our essential nature.

So how do we make the transition from scattered to gathered? And do we even want to?

If Sunday morning worship is a beach vacation and online worship is not — no sand between the toes; it’s not real — then what’s it going to be like May 31? Or whenever your church reopens for in-person worship? With all the distancing and masks and weird communion kits and a lot of our older brothers and sisters staying home, it’s not going to be a day at the beach. It might be more like sticking your finger in a jar of sand you brought back from South Padre four years ago.

That’s not great. We need to anticipate that it’s not going to be the same for a while. It’s going to feel very different. So do we even want to do it?

Peace,

Allan

From Scattered to Gathered: Part 1

Most churches are beginning to reopen for in-person Sunday worship. Church leaders are taping off pews, sanitizing doorknobs, and trying to figure out what to do with the kids. There are many questions that come as a church transitions from scattered to gathered in the middle of a global pandemic, some of them seemingly unanswerable. All of us are doing this for the very first time, we’re flying by the seat of our pants. But one question that must be answered is this: Why bother?

Central is reopening for public worship next Sunday May 31. And it will not be like it was in February. In fact, it won’t be like it’s ever been in the 112-year history of this congregation. We’re asking our people in the at-risk categories to stay home. We’re blocking off two out of every three pews so we can maintain nine to twelve feet of distance between us. We’re wearing masks. We’re using those individually packaged “Rip n Sip” communion kits (yuk!). No Bible classes for a while, no children’s programming.

What is that going to look like? How is that going to feel?

Eric Gentry is a CofC preacher in Memphis, Tennessee and he wrote an article a couple of weeks ago asking this question: “Is there something about God, church, worship, or community that we are not experiencing now online that we will experience once we return, even under the restrictive conditions? If so, what is it?”

That’s probably the question we need to answer. Whatever “it” is, if we’re eager to experience “it” together at church, we should probably be able to define “it.” I keep hearing how desperate we all are to be back together in the same room, how we can’t wait to meet again as a church. But do we know why? Because when we do come back together, we’ll do so at the risk of compromising the health of our members and guests. It’ll cost us more money in utilities and cleaning than we’ve been spending for the past two months. And with all of us spread out so far apart and wearing masks and the weird communion, it’s going to be a diminished worship experience. It won’t be the same.

So, let’s work through this.

I believe the desire in us to assemble together on Sunday mornings is so deep and so strong because it is the very essence of who we are as God’s people. The Church is God’s gathered people.

In the account of the inception of the Church of Jesus Christ, the Bible makes clear that the people in Jerusalem that day had come from all over the known world. Acts 2:8-11 lists all the foreigners who were there the countries from where they came. The author doesn’t want you to miss it. God had brought these people together from all over and that’s when he established the Church.

Peter preaches that God’s Holy Spirit had raised Jesus from the grave and that Jesus is alive and reigning at the right hand of God and that the crucified Jesus is indeed both Lord and Christ. And three thousand people were baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins and they each received the gift of God’s Spirit living inside them. And they responded. Saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, guided by the power of the Spirit, notice how they lived and worshiped and served together.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” ~Acts 2:42-47

Our God, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, has saved us and called us to be a gathered together people. Staying away from each other goes against our nature as Christians. It’s like a bird trying not to fly. It’s like Ted Nugent trying not to cuss. It’s not going to last very long. We must be together.

The literal definition of Church in the Bible is an assembly of people. The original Greek word is ekklesia. It means a gathering or assembly of people. You find it 111 times in the New Testament. Everywhere you see the English word “church,” it’s a translation of the Greek word for assembly.

David Watson writes, “The word ekklesia always speaks of the coming together of God’s people in answer to his call, in order to meet with God in the company of each other, and to meet each other in the presence of God.”

Meeting together — it’s the very definition of who we are. We are first and foremost a gathered people.

The Christian faith is an embodied faith. Coming together to share the same space, to breathe the same air, and to eat and drink the same meal embodies our incarnational God. In Christ Jesus, our God joins us in physical bodily form and calls us to also come together in community in one another’s physical, bodily, face to face presence. The things we do together like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and congregational singing are communal acts meant to be shared and experienced in community. We don’t baptize ourselves. We break bread together. We believe the Church, the assembly of God’s people, is a spiritual reality that is manifest and given its power in physical acts done by physical people in physical proximity.

Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I’m right there with them!”

I think that’s the “it.”

That’s what is so special about Sunday mornings together. It’s the unique presence of our God with us when his people all physically come together. It’s the powerful presence of God with his people on the Day of Assembly. It’s God himself eating and drinking with his people when they come together at Mount Sinai. It’s the Lord’s glory appearing in the midst of his assembled people during the appointed times. Being together in the same physical space in the presence of God — that’s the deal! That’s what we’re craving.

And you can’t get it online.

Peace,

Allan

Church People: Part 3

“A truth, a doctrine, or a religion needs no space for itself. They are disembodied entities. They are heard and learned and apprehended and that is all. But the incarnate Son of God needs not only ears and hearts but living people who will follow him. That is why he called his disciples into a literal, bodily following and thus made his fellowship with them a visible reality.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Ours is an incarnational faith, not a disembodied abstraction. That’s how our God works in us and through us for the sake of the world. People don’t get agitated over what they can’t see. People don’t risk their lives for invisible concepts. Only a visible flesh-and-blood people church works, because salvation is not a one-time, single event. Salvation is not just having your name moved from the “unsaved” column to the Book of Life when you’re baptized. Salvation is restoration, reconciliation, transformation, and healing. Yes, it starts by being united to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But it continues — in fits and starts, off and on, usually slowly, but surely — in the Church. By looking at each other across the table during the communion meal and discerning the body. By learning how to worship and serve together. By practicing love and mercy together. By forgiving others and receiving that forgiveness. By experiencing acceptance and belonging.

You can’t get that from an ideal concept or an abstract theology. You can only feel that and experience that together in a broken and messy church-people church.

So when we stand together and recite the two-thousand-year-old words of the Apostles’ Creed, we can say we believe in the holy, universal Church. We believe that in this place, in this assembly, God is at work. We don’t believe in the Church; the Church is not the object of our faith. But we do believe that in this congregation, whenever we come together, the Holy Spirit’s saving, sanctifying, transforming work is taking place.

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up one part, but of many… In fact, God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be… Now you are the Body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” ~1 Corinthians 12

Our Father brought the Church into the world the same way he brought our Savior into the world: by a miracle. The miracle of the Church is every bit as miraculous as the birth of Jesus. The Holy Spirit descended on Mary in the Galilean village of Nazareth. Thirty-something years later, that same Holy Spirit of God descended upon 120 men and women praying in an upper room in Jerusalem. Mary was with them. The first Holy Spirit conception gave us Jesus as a person. The second Holy Spirit conception gave us the Church, Jesus as a people.

It was a miracle that didn’t look that grand or important. God was working in and through the powerless, the vulnerable, the weak. Not very different from any random congregation you might look up today. Just like your church. And mine. A group of people who are not wise by human standards, not influential, not of noble birth; just weak and lowly flesh-and-blood people.

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen!” ~Ephesians 3:20-21

Peace,

Allan

Evidence of the Grace of God

“When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” ~Act 11:23

Barnabas saw things in Antioch that proved to him God was active and working among the Christians there. He saw visible proof, tangible evidence that God’s grace was having an important impact. Part of the proof was that disconnected disciples were becoming one in Christ. They were unified in spirit.

“During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world (this happened during the reign of Claudius). The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” ~Acts 11:27-30

In our society today, we have perfected the art of screaming at each other. I say we’ve perfected it because God help us if there are more levels of that to attain. If we still have a ways to go in developing newer methods of yelling, insulting, labeling, ignoring, fighting, and separating from one another, God help us.

Our first impulse is to define our differences. Our worst habit is dividing. We have black churches and white churches. We have blue churches and red churches. Rich churches and poor churches. Progressive churches and traditional churches. And hundreds of different denominations. What can be done about that?

God’s grace. Only the power of God’s grace.

This is the work of Jesus, right? This is what Jesus does. He’s got Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot in the same band! That’s like having Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump in the same house church! And Jesus tells both of them: Knock it off! I’m in charge! We’re not into identity politics here! We’re not motivated by our differences! We’re on a mission from God for the Kingdom of God compelled by the grace of God that’s bringing all things and all people together in Christ!

You’ve got a really volatile thing in Antioch. Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and Barbarians, slave and free, rich and poor, Mediterranean culture and Syrian desert culture — all kinds of racial, cultural, and socioeconomic differences. And they’re all united together by the blood of Christ. Their life in Christ is bigger and more important than their differences. The mission is bigger and more important than their comfort or their preferences.

And what about the gift? They’re sending money to the church in Jerusalem. They’re sending their own financial resources to the brothers and sisters they’ve never met in a different culture 300 miles away. It’s extraordinary! How does this happen?

Barnabas sees it as evidence of God’s grace.

Do we see that kind of counter-cultural Christian unity in our churches today? Are we even looking for it?

Peace,

Allan

What Else Barnabas Saw

“When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad…” ~Acts 11:23

The Jerusalem church leaders sent Barnabas to Antioch to investigate the news that Gentiles there were being baptized. Is it legit? What are they being taught? How are they worshiping? Who’s leading them? Can we sign off on this? I’m not sure what the specific concerns might have been, but we do know that when Barnabas arrived, he clearly saw physical, tangible proof that God was at work. What did he see? Can we see those same things today? And are we even looking for those things?

“The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” ~Acts 11:21

Barnabas saw sinners turning their lives to Christ. They believed the Good News that God through Jesus was putting everything back together again. The persecuted proclaimers knew it, the new disciples in Antioch understood it, Barnabas saw it, and we need to believe it! We don’t trust in God’s Word, we don’t believe in God’s power, we don’t believe in God if we don’t think it’s possible in our churches and throughout our cities. Barnabas saw sinners stop sinning. And that’s what you and I need to be looking for, too. That should be our expectation.

But we have this attitude that we expect to keep sinning. Before we ever get out of bed in the morning, before our feet ever touch the floor, we know that we’re human and that we’re going to sin sometime before dinner. What is that?!? Where does that come from?!? Not from the Bible. I know we can’t be completely perfect this side of glory. We’re not saints. Randy Harris defines “saint” as someone who’s life hasn’t been sufficiently researched. But what is this concession to sin?

“Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” ~Romans 6:1-4

God’s grace is the avenue for genuine repentance and change. Where there is God’s grace, you’re going to see changed lives. By the same token, f your life is not changed, perhaps you have not personally received the grace of God — you’re rejecting it or denying it or something. It is God’s grace that motivates and initiates real change. It is God’s grace that empowers you and me to say “no” to sin.

“The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” ~Titus 2:11-14

The grace of God has given us the redeeming life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That ought to be enough, but it seems like it takes more to get us excited nowadays. We’re jaded. Bored. I know, Jesus saved us by dying on the cross. Yeah, yeah. Yawn. Are you kidding?!?! That is stark raving mad!!!

Jesus has delivered us from our bondage to sin! Jesus has rescued us from our slavery to death! We belong to a loving and gracious God through our risen and reigning Lord! Jesus is reigning right now at the right hand of God! He’s taken office! The ascension is huge! We don’t talk about the ascension enough! Jesus is in charge right now! And he doesn’t reign like Queen Elizabeth — he absolutely rules! And we humbly give our whole lives over to him! We say “No” to sin every day, every hour, and “Yes” to his gracious rule!

With a lot of exclamation points!

That’s what Barnabas saw in Antioch as proof of God’s grace. Is your life radically changed by the love of God in Christ? Do we see dramatically changed lives in our churches? Are we even looking for it?

Peace,

Allan

What Barnabas Saw

“When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad…” ~Acts 11:23

When the church leaders in Jerusalem got word that the Greeks in Antioch were turning to the Lord, they sent Barnabas there to check things out. And what Barnabas saw convinced him that God was surely at work. He saw proof of the grace of God. It’s probably a good idea for us to try to identify the things Barnabas saw and look for those things in our own churches. Pay attention to those things. Give special consideration to those things.

Certainly Barnabas was impressed that these persecuted Christians were so boldly sharing the Gospel.

These Christians from Jerusalem / Israel were in the throes of oppression. Their friends and relatives were being beaten and thrown into prison. At least one of their leaders, Stephen, had been killed. They’d been scattered all over the world, separated from their relatives and communities. But “those who had been scattered preached the Word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). Those who wound up in Antioch found themselves in the middle of one of the most wicked cities in the Empire. And we don’t have even a hint of anyone complaining or questioning God. What they saw through the eyes of faith was not their negative circumstances — they saw a massive opportunity for the Kingdom.

Acts 8 gives us the story of Philip in Samaria. And now we have these unnamed disciples in Antioch.

“Some of them, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the Good News about the Lord Jesus.” ~Acts 11:20

We are not in the same situation in the United States in 2019. But it’s similar. I think we can draw parallels.

Christianity does not enjoy a favored status in the Empire of the United States anymore. The government no longer props up the Church here. The culture has turned against our Lord and his people. We’re on the outside of power now in the U.S. and on the way to being marginalized. On the way to persecution. You can pretend it’s not happening, but that doesn’t make it less true. We’re there. Jesus is no longer honored, his Church is no longer respected, and his truth is no longer believed in this country.

How do we see that?

We must see this as a tremendous opportunity! This is an incredibly exciting time! There’s all kinds of potential for miraculous Holy Spirit adventure here! We’re in uncharted territory that’s testing our faith and stretching our resolve. This is the best time — the perfect time! — for God to work in and through his Church to do something none of us has ever thought of or imagined! He’s capable. He’s done it countless times before. Do we see it? Are we even looking for it?

These unnamed disciples, these persecuted Christians who first started talking to the Greeks in Antioch — I wish we knew more about them. All we know is that in the middle of trouble they didn’t hide. They didn’t keep quiet for fear of offending someone. They didn’t compromise the Gospel or water down the truth for fear of getting in trouble. In a strange and sinful land, as outsiders in almost every sense of the word, they did not shrink from the mission. They proclaimed the Gospel of Christ!

How? How in the world could they be so bold? So confident? Fearless? Well, it was clear to Barnabas: only by the grace of God, which empowered them to share the Good News.

Do we see that same grace of God in our churches today? Are we even looking for it?

Peace,

Allan

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