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Why are the places and groups I’ve experienced that were the most like the CHURCH that I see in the Bible adamant about saying “We are not a church!” and the churches that I’ve been to that say “Come to church” aren’t anything like what I see in the Bible? Why is this basic unit of Christian people such a hard thing to pin down, and why is it so warped today? I’m going to focus on what really stands out in a few groups I’ve been in that made it more like what the Bible says than what people say.
One element is a sense of community. There is a difference between hanging out for the sake of the Lord and having a bunch of activities. Times that I’d say I experienced real church would be the times that people came together often with no agenda or goal, but only to be together and as a result talk about Jesus. When Jesus becomes the topic, goal, and life of a group of individual people, He becomes the life of the group as well. It’s those times that the people just wanted to be together and talk about Jesus that I feel like I experienced church.
Now we all know people that are zealous – or at least make themselves look zealous on Facebook. The times in my life that I have really seen God move through people and situations and use people from the least to the greatest was when they came together and shared the same zeal for God. Not saying they were all equally righteous or equally religious, but equally hungry and desperate for God to work in their lives. I’m not saying it’s broken if you have people that are unsure or uncommitted, but if the majority of the group isn’t committed to Jesus in the same way, it shows, and a lot of times the lack of commitment wins out.
Have you ever visited or volunteered for an organization and then read their mission statement and feel all confused? “That’s what I’ve been doing? No,
I’ve been doing this other thing, but that mission statement doesn’t really fit with what I thought they did here.” I’ve been thinking a lot about de facto mission statements and purposes vs. the published and posted statements. Churches that act like churches haven’t needed a mission statement. I never once wonder if these people are really here for their amazing building, their talented worship band, or the great name they are making for themselves in their city. The funny part is, these groups I’ve experienced have an idea or a definition of what church is, and for whatever reason, don’t want to be confused with being called one. They have had a laser focus on being closer to Jesus, to living life according to Him at every moment, but at the same time deny being called “The presence of Jesus among people on earth” (loose paraphrase of how Neil Cole defines the church). You don’t hear them promoting a fundraiser, but the money is always there. I’ve never heard them ask for volunteers, but all of the work is done.
De Facto Ecclesiology
So maybe we need to talk about de facto ecclesiology vs. actual ecclesiology. Maybe we need to talk about all of our vision talk vs. the reality of people being worn out with vision talk. At the same time, I’m facing the reality of asking “Do I really want to be a part of a church? And by church I mean the real deal. Are any of us ready to be a part of the joy and sacrifice of the real Church?”
Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts, https://www.youversion.com/bible/107/act.2.net
There is a section in Acts 6 that shows how sometimes the things people argue about aren’t really the things they are thinking about.
Then they secretly instigated men who said,“We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.”
and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”
I can count three times these guys change their story. As you pick apart their words, it gets a little more revealing every time.
- Their story is that Stephen is against Moses and God. The Law is a big deal and it came from God to Moses, so those two are the sore spots in Judaism. You can talk ideas all day long, but don’t talk against them specifically
- Their story is that Stephen is against the holy place and the law. Ok, now we are getting more specific, and seeing that it isn’t really God or Moses that Stephen is talking about, but the holy place and the law. The building is a building. It represented a lot to the Jewish people, but at the same time the building they were in was far beyond God’s design and had a ton of improvements from an evil Gentile ruler. Kind of like hanging a “Brought to you by Jack Daniels and Victoria Secret” backlit electric sign on your church. Sure, it was intended to be a holy place, but it was funded and built up by evil.
- (This one is really the best.) Their story is that Jesus of Nazareth (whom they killed and claimed His body was stolen) is going to destroy the temple and change the customs of Moses. If their story that Jesus’ body was not really back from the dead but rather was stolen, then how is this possible? And have you seen the temple?! A man can’t tear that thing down anyway! I think it is so interesting that they bring that as an accusation because it’s either preposterous to think something is possible or there is some genuine fear.
All in all, the truth comes out that God isn’t really the point of this at all, but their building and their customs.
I get to be a guest speaker at a church this morning. Here is my sermon.
A lot of people jump to the end of Acts 2 and talk about the church:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 ESV)
And then they give a few more details later in Acts 4:
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:32-37 ESV)
That sounds like a great thing! Unless you love your stuff. Unless you love your possessions. And what if you have a lie problem, or a lust problem? It was in this community that Annanias and Saphira lied about what they were giving and they fell over dead. Peter even said to them that they weren’t forced to give anything but they wanted to give and they wanted to keep all at the same time.
This was a community that was holy in a sense of the word that I’m not sure we can fully grasp. No sin could be found among them, because to be a part of this group was to be transparent. At the same time, it seems like the most comfortable group on the world because in their transparency there was grace.
Not only had they given up their possessions, but they had also given up their right to judgement. The Holy Spirit was there among them to take care of that, if necessary.
Now skip ahead a few years in church history. There are some guys that are hungry, beaten, criminals, locked up in chains in a prison.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, (Acts 16:25 ESV)
What do you picture? What kind of state do you think they were in? Rewind 3 verses to see how they got there.
The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, (Acts 16:22-25 ESV)
When they were set free the next day, after miracles happened all night, they didn’t seek revenge on the men that started the attack. They had a peaceful audience with the magistrate in the morning and the didn’t demand retribution, even though it says the magistrate was terrified to find out that they were Roman citizens.
They had the right and power to seek retribution and revenge and they didn’t take it.
The sermon on the mount is a source of strength and confusion for people. We cling to the beatitudes when we identify with those things
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:3-12 ESV)
But when Jesus starts getting into some real nitty gritty at the end, we start to like that He spoke in parables, so we can sidestep teachings like chop off your hand if it causes you to sin or whenever someone slaps your cheek let them slap the other one.
I know I read that stuff and sometimes my only prayer is "How is that possible?!" But isn’t that what you see in the book of Acts? The Holy Spirit chopped off the lying tither and the prisoners sang songs while they were naked and severely bruised.
I will tell you how they did it. First of all, the things they did, the things Jesus did, the things that we are called to do, are not human. They are alien–and by alien I mean "from outside."
Only Jesus’ life in a person can do this, and that doesn’t come from grunting or straining, but by faith in the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return of Jesus Christ, the Son of one and only living God. Let me show you how that happens.
Acts v. -1, Jesus risen from the dead, firstborn among many sons, author of the new creation
- Genesis v.1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Creation begins
1.4 the Holy Spirit wind & fire blows through the believers and they are given speech
- Gen 2.7 God breathed into the man the breath of life, and the man became a living being
2.11 People from all over the world hear in their own languages about the magnificent acts of God
- Gen 11.1 The whole world tries to unite in language on their own and make a name for themselves to PREVENT from being scattered all over the world.
God sends out people to all of the nations to proclaim and announce the rescue mission, that what was once done is now being undone. He sends them out to gather the Body of Christ together.
- Gen 11.8 God scattered them all over the world and scrambled their languages. He divided them so that they would be weakened in their pride and self-exultation.
In Acts Peter announces the new kingdom to hundreds of people from all over the world.
Acts When they heard this, they came under deep conviction and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles: “Brothers, what must we do?”
38 “Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
39 For the promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”
40 And with many other words he testified and strongly urged them saying, “Be saved from this corrupt generation!”
- Gen 12.1-3 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.
From there they go out, and the rest of the book is the telling of
how God took one small family of faith and reached out to the entire
world. I’m talking about both books, right?
I want to set all of that up because whenever we look at the book of Acts and we long for that kind of community, it kind of gets dumped on us as a list of rules, or a list of things that we should all do in our own contemporary style.
I want to point out the parallels with the book of Genesis so that we can fully grasp that the things that the early church did weren’t just neat or convenient or even out of necessity during persecution.
They were part of a new creation.
They were part of a new covenant.
They were a new species of people, filled with the Holy Spirit of God for the sake of the lost world.
Sometimes I read something in the Bible that moves me so much I can’t contain it. Like right now when I’m sitting at a table at Starbucks and I can’t make my eyes stop watering, can’t stop my face from grimacing, can’t stop laughing at the glory and awesomeness of God! I’m sure if anybody notices me they’ll think I’m manic.
The next thing I pray is “GOD! PLEASE LET ME TEACH THIS AMAZING THING FAITHFULLY! PLEASE HELP ME TO EXPLAIN THIS TO OTHERS WITH THE POWER YOU JUST EXPLAINED THIS TO ME!”
And then inside there is a still, small voice that says, “No Dan, sometimes they are just for you.” and then I cry more.