Big Church Week One: "It's On!"
It was a place I went, and something I did.
Every Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening my family would "go to church," which meant that we would gather with the members of whatever congregation that we happened to be a part of at the time and we would engage in what some might call worship.
We didn't. We called it "church."
Church was an object rather than a subject. It was wholly other to us. We were a part of the churches we attended, but beyond our involvement at the appointed times, we didn't really walk around thinking about whether being part of a particular congregation pointed to some sort of higher meaning for us.
My experience is probably not that dissimilar from most church-going Christian folk. Us Christian types tend to gravitate toward the notion that "church" is a destination, rather than an identity. In other words, we go to church, but don't really think of ourselves as the church.
And we seldom think of The Church as something that has movement, is fluid, flexible, open, unstructured and dangerous.
But when we read about the early days of the Church, we discover that is exactly what Jesus seems to have meant for it to be.
So, what is the church--really?
For the purpose of this sermon series that I am preaching, I want to make clear that I believe the church is a movement not an institution.
A movement is something that is defined by action, isn't it? It changes, it grows, it moves. An institution on the other hand, is often defined by it's position. You know where the institution is because it's sort of always been there, immovable and smacking of permanence.
Even though we all know that permanence is an illusion, we long for the certainty that this illusion provides us, and tend to support the entities that offer the illusion. Dang. That sounded profound anyway.
Second, since we are sort of defining terms and establishing the lingo we'll be using throughout this series, I believe that "the Church" is who we are, not where we go. And by "we" I mean those of us who call ourselves Jesus-followers---Christians, if you will.
Understanding that "church" isn't a building, but a people is the key to unlocking the focus of this entire sermon series that I'll be preaching for the next several weeks----so, it's kind of important.
Listen, Jesus didn't create a mission for the church, Jesus created a church for his mission. I think us Christian-types tend to get this backward, which ultimately leads us back to the notion that church is somewhere you go--rather than who what you are.
There's no better place in Scripture to see this whole thing unfold than the book of Acts, formally known as "The Acts of the Apostles."
I love the arc that the story in the book of Acts takes.
It begins with a bunch of scared people in a room, wondering what is going to happen to them---disciples of Jesus, who are afraid to venture outside the door because they think they might be killed.
It ends---literally---with the word "unhindered" as the Apostle Paul sits imprisoned in Rome, which was widely known as the "very end of the Earth," preaching the Gospel, furthering the movement of Christ.
I'd call that a movement, wouldn't you?
But how did it get there? And what can we learn from the book of Acts that can help us understand what it means to be the Church? This week I am preaching from Acts 5:17-42, but before we get to the text, let's take a couple of minutes to hear the story so far...
In the opening moments of Acts, the resurrected Jesus ascends into Heaven and the disciples huddle together afterward trying to figure out what to do. As they are praying, the Holy Spirit shows up and blows the place apart and fills them with power and the ability to learn languages faster than if they had Rosetta Stone. They begin preaching outside the Temple on the day of Pentecost. Three thousand people believed in Jesus that day and were baptized. Peter and John continue preaching and healing afterward and are thrown in prison by the same religious leaders who trumped up charges against Jesus to get him killed. An angel comes and lets them out of the jail in the middle of the night and they go back to preaching right away. This time when they are brought back by the authorities, they are warned to stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus. And, as we shall see, Peter throws down in the face of what could be certain death.
I have a question for you.
How many defining moments have you had in your life where you experienced a tremendous transformation--and the whole thing was nice, neat and linear?
There's nothing neat about any part of this story is there?
It's kind of the hip, cool and very awesome trend to try to recapture the early church. I've even heard people say, "If we could just be more like the Early Church, man. That would be the way to go." To which I replay, "You mean like togas and sandals?" And to which they would reply, "No man, the early church."
Typically the people saying these things are part of hip, cool, trendy non-denominational churches with awesome lighting.
But they might be on to something---at least as it relates to discovering a vision for what the Church could be if it was truly intent on fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ to spread the Good News of how God is saving the world through him. What if we caught this vision for who we really are---I mean really caught it? I suspect it would change a few things.
Let's read Acts 5:17-42
17 Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. 20 “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life.” 21 At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people. When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. 22 But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, 23 “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24 On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to. 25 Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” 26 At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them. 27 The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.” 29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” 33 When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. 34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 35 Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. 38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” 40 His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. 41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.
Let's focus on a couple of verses in this rather long passage...
First, we need to understand why these religious leaders got so angry and wanted to kill Peter and John---but probably mostly Peter. Peter starts off his mini-sermon by saying, "We ought to obey God, rather than men." This was the proverbial tossing down of the proverbial gauntlet. Most of the men gathered in that room had their positions because they collaborated and cooperated with their Roman overlords. They sold out their own people for power, money and influence.
So, Peter's words hit them right where they lived. Besides, the members of the Sanhedrin, as it was called, had a default mode whenever they encountered things they didn't understand---especially if said things gave the people under their sway a measure of hope and joy outside of the religious institutions: they killed people.
Then after all is said and done, one of the religious leaders, a man named Gamaliel speaks up: "...I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
Not a lot is known about Gamaliel. We know that he was the rabbi and teacher of Saul of Tarsus, who we know as the Apostle Paul---the guy who wrote half of the New Testament.
He was a Pharisee, which put him in the minority among the leaders on the Sanhedrin, which was made up mostly of Sadducees. The Sadducees were a sect in the Jewish faith that did not believe in resurrection, and deemphasized human agency within God's plans. The Pharisees were a bit more hopeful---they believed in resurrection, and firmly believed that God's will happened with human help. More or less.
In the Jewish Book of Legends there are only two stories about Gamaliel, both of which are dated around 20-30 AD. One of them involves a situation where the king and queen (Herod & Herodias?) discover a dead lizard in their food stores, and the queen is distraught because she fears that this will make them unclean to eat. Gamaliel is consulted, and advises the queen to pour warm water on the lizard. She has this done, and the lizard "wakes up" and scurries off saving the food stores from being thrown out.
I have no idea why I included that, except it was awesome.
Gamaliel offers a bit of a level head here in the text. He reminds the other members of the Sanhedrin that there had been other revolts and other charismatic leaders that had fallen and failed. He kind of reminds me of the sort of world-weary church leaders who say things like, "That's not the way we do things around here," or "We tried that before and it didn't work, so it probably won't work now."
This, of course, makes sense to the religious elites. After all, they are much more enlightened than the unwashed masses who rush to and fro trying to find something, anything to give them hope and peace.
Here's the major contrast between Gamaliel, and the Disciples:
For Gamaliel and the Establishment their attitude here is "wait and see." These religious elites are confronted by reports that Jesus was raised from the dead, the disciples are performing miracles, speaking in languages they've never studied and converting three thousand and counting over to this new movement that follows the very man they thought they killed.
And they want to wait and see how it all turns out... And in so doing they miss the whole thing.
For the Disciples, their attitude is summed up by these two words: "It's On!" They had experienced the Risen Christ. The Holy Spirit had set them on fire, and they were experiencing an unbelievable sense of Jesus' presence, moving them, transforming them and drawing more and more people to them.
"It's on." In the face of death. In the aftermath of beatings. In spite of threats and allegations from the Institution. "It's on."
So where are we as a congregation?
Do our structures submit to the moving of the Spirit? Or do they serve to keep the Spirit contained or kept out of our structures altogether? Are we more concerned about our identity within man-made institutions than our identity as a Christ-centered community?
I had a friend who was an elder at a church where I served on the staff. During one of our board meetings, as we were working through an endless list of projects and committee reports---none of which had anything to do with sharing the Gospel, or moving outside the walls of our buildings, he suddenly spoke up.
"I just feel grieved in my spirit right now," he told us. "We've spent the last two hours talking about things that really don't matter to the kingdom of God. Why are we not talking about how we are going to reach our neighbors for Christ? Why are we not talking about how we can help our members grow deeper in their faith as Christians? Why are we not moving outside of the walls of this church? The truth is, we NEVER talk about those things."
He was right. We had spent the previous forty-five minutes listening to some subcommittee talk about which kinds of recycle bins that the church should get.
Needless to say, his comments didn't go over very well. And after his tenure as an elder was over, my friend left that church to attend one that understood what it meant to be part of a movement---a vibrant gathering of people intent on deepening their faith in God, and sharing the Gospel with a world in need.
Lots of other people left with him.
Are we racing to keep up with the Spirit of God as we are led from one crazy moment to another? Most of us church-y people are simply "waiting and seeing," content with our meetings, hierarchies, constitutions and other structures that we often use to pre-determine where the Spirit is leading.
Are we content to stay still while the restless unpredictable Spirit of God moves to a more receptive place?
I say NO! I'm not content to stay still.
There are people all around us who need to know Jesus. There are needs to be met in the world. And God will use those congregations who get this: in order to be part of a movement---you need to move!