Category: Acts (Page 1 of 11)

Each Member Belongs

“In Christ, we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” ~Romans 12:5

Plenty of studies have been conducted over the years that prove the importance of strong relationships. You’ll be in better health, you’ll be happier, and you’ll live longer if you have close friends. Even if you have poor health habits, the effects are mitigated by having a group of good friends. According to all the research, it’s healthier to eat donuts together than to eat broccoli by yourself!

That’s a theology I can embrace!

When God gathers us together in Christ, we belong to each other. All of us. Almost all the commands in the Bible are “one another” commands: love one another, build one another up, encourage one another, pray for one another, be devoted to one another, honor one another, live in harmony with one another, accept one another, instruct one another, greet one another, agree with one another. serve one another, be patient with one another, be kind and compassionate to one another, submit to one another, forgive one another. These commands can only be obeyed in community. We can only follow these instructions if we’re together, if we live and worship and serve together, and if we really belong to each other.

I think you can get to heaven without good close Christian friends. Probably. But you’re not going to be changed by God to become all he intends for you to be without other disciples of Christ pushing you, challenging you, lifting you up, helping you, and worshiping and serving with you.

That’s church. At least, that’s the intent of church. We know that’s how and why it started. From the very first day, the church is built on and functions through intimate Christian relationships.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… 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.” ~Acts 2:42-46

All these people from all different walks of life gathered by God to live together in community with Christ. Every day. In each other’s homes. Loving each other, serving each other, ministering to each other, taking care of each other, eating together, singing and praying together. They devoted themselves to the communion, it says, the koinonia, this sharing of life together in Christ.

As a whole, generally speaking, we don’t do this very well anymore. Over the centuries, the church, the community, has moved from smaller intimate groups who share life together in Christ to larger more impersonal groups who share a weekly meeting. We’ve moved from encouraging one another and building each other up to, “Hey, you got a problem? Go talk to the preacher.” “You’re dealing with some issue? Call the elders.”

We’ve moved away from the priesthood of all believers where everybody meets the needs of the ones in their community to specialized programs.

“Dan’s in the hospital? I don’t do that. That’s not my ministry.”

“Trudy’s lawnmower broke? That’s not my program. But somebody at the church does stuff like that.”

“We haven’t seen John in three months? The church should have a visitation team.”

“George and Jane’s teenage son is in trouble? Don’t we have a youth minister?”

Over the decades and centuries, we’ve lost community in church. We’ve turned the church’s weekly community thanksgiving meal together into the most individual and solitary, leave-me-alone time imaginable. We’ve gone from doing life together in Christ around the kitchen table to a solemn ceremony in an auditorium. Don’t distract me!

We’re trying to shift some of that here at the Golf Course Road Church in Midland. We’re starting twelve new small groups as a step toward formational Christian community. These groups are going to eat together and study the Bible. But they’re also going to practice spiritual disciplines together and serve on mission together in our city.

We’re also doing more interactive things when we’re together in the worship center on Sunday mornings. We’re doing more participatory things, more getting up and moving around, more eye contact, more talking to each other. We’re attempting to shift the Lord’s Meal to be more about communion, more about fellowship and sharing, and less about individual meditation.

There are plenty of things our churches can program and plan to cultivate an environment for tighter Christian community. But maybe you could start by grabbing a dozen donuts in the morning with some future friends.

Peace,

Allan

Serve Like Jesus

“What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants.” ~1 Corinthians 3:5

Around the table on that last night, our Lord Jesus personally washed the feet of his disciples. Then he told them, “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing” (John 14:12). Our model is the Lord. We serve others in the name and manner of our great high priest. We do our best to imitate Jesus, the Christ, who was always with people, always helping people, always serving people. In the crush of the crowd, in the middle of the multitude – healing, feeding, protecting, encouraging. In the quiet of the one-on-one conversations at night. Weeping at a funeral. Eating with a tax collector. Holding the kids. Dying on a cross.

The Church is not an end in itself. The Church does not exist to make rules, to pass laws, to be in charge, or to glorify itself. The Church does not seek its own power or privilege or comfort. And we’re not just a support group for people who have already been saved. Just like our Lord, the Church is sent into the world not to be served, but to serve. And to give itself up for others.

We know the words of our Savior who said it is more blessed to give than to receive. And we experience the truth of that, and the blessings, when we serve others in love.

Peace,

Allan

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

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