We’ve been making our way, these last few weeks, through the accounts of the early church in Acts. As I have prepared for worship I have been asking the Scripture – “How did the early church do it? How were they church together? How did they go about God’s work in the world?”
The stories that have demonstrated the answers each week have been dramatic. Peter and the apostles were thrown in jail for teaching about Jesus. Despite the threat of the long arm of the law, they are STILL witnesses to what they have seen. And then there’s Saul, a notorious persecutor of the Christians who is blinded by a vision of Jesus, yet finds his way to faithful Ananias, who follows the Lord’s call to minister to this dangerous enemy of his faith. Then last week Peter is given visions of animals and food descending on a blanket from heaven. He hears the voice of God and has the courage to stand up to his fellow believers with a message of inclusivity beyond their imaging.
Jail. Visions. Voices from heaven. Divinely-inspired dreams. It seems like the folks in the old days had all the fun!
Hear this story about a woman, a good and faithful Christian. She’s a member of her church, the first or second to raise her hand for most jobs. We’ll call her Susan. She worships most Sundays, and has for about a decade. She’s one folks know they can count on not only for committee work or to serve on the session, but for last minute jobs like greeting on Sunday morning, because they know she’ll be there.
But somehow, even with all her activity in the church, Susan feels that something is missing. She somehow senses, and secretly fears, that despite all this church activity, she’s not much different than her friends who don’t attend church at all, the ones who go to yoga or Spinning at the Y on Sunday morning instead of attending any church, the ones who travel with their kids to soccer games or even just sleep in instead.
Susans or Samuels are all around us. Probably they even ARE some of us. They are the faithful who “wonder when their ticket is going to be punched, when they are going to experience the changed life they’ve been promised and expected to experience at church” (Reggie McNeal, The Present Future). They are the faithful, dedicated saints of the church who hear God’s call to the ministries we undertake, but wonder if maybe there isn’t supposed to be a little something more to who we are as the church.
Now hear this story about a few first-century travelers who have set out on a journey. They are on fire as they are led by their tireless tour guide, the Holy Spirit. You know the type. When I was little Disney World was crawling with them. Young men or women from Brazil or Japan or any number of other countries. They had perfected the art of walking backwards holding a small flag of their country high in the air, while smiling for the entire day and leading a herd of tourists from Tomorrowland to Fantasyland to Frontierland. They had energy like no one else in the park and could make standing in a 30 minute bathroom line look like fun. No one in those tour groups ever looked bored. Their guide’s enthusiasm was infectious.
The traveling conditions of our ancient trekkers are tough, funds are tight, and there is frightening opposition to the group they represent in some of the places they plan to visit. Yet despite all this, they set out with conviction and faith. They’ve poured over the map in preparation for the journey and know exactly where they will go and what route they will take, retracing the step one of them has already taken for some of the trip. But then one night, in the middle of their trip, one has a vision, a itinerary changing vision. They believe the vision is calling them to proclaim the Good News in a way different than they had initially thought. Their tour guide has a better plan, so they immediately change their plans and set off in a new direction.
With faith and dedication and a commitment to sharing the message, story and life of Jesus Christ with others, they continue on a completely different journey than they planned without really knowing what they might encounter along the way. The plan to check up on some previously planted “new church developments” has turned into something altogether different as they make their way to a new continent with their message about Jesus.
What faith. What dedication. What a commitment to sharing the life of Jesus Christ with others.
Contrasting the stories of modern-day followers like Susan to early church followers like Paul, we see a marked difference. Jesus’ early followers were alive with the fire of the Holy Spirit, whereas many of us today seem to lack that fire, passion, and conviction. We claim that the world is a different place; our responsibilities keep us tied down. At the Synod meeting I attended recently someone lamented being constrained by our polity. I’ll be the first to admit that the Presbyterian way sometimes seems slow and closed off, but I think we’re passing the buck if we blame all our frustrations on an organizational structure.
Perhaps the real difference is that followers of Jesus in the early church were clear about what they were called to do, whereas today many of our traditional, mainline churches lack that clarity. Followers in the early church were clear that they were to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, as we heard in today’s reading. How Paul and his cohorts accomplished this purpose can be instructive to us if we seek to reclaim and increase a passionate, fiery faith.
In the middle of their journey, Paul saw a vision. Now, Paul has had experience with visions before, remember. In his former life he was struck blind by a vision of the resurrected Christ asking him why he was killing Christ’s people. Paying attention to visions has made him a new man, a man of faith, a man with a calling from God, passionate about what he has seen and experienced, passionate enough to want to share it with the world. Again and again in Acts, Paul’s passion spring directly from his willingness to listen for and act on God’s word. If we are to rediscover the fire of the early Christians, we, too, must be willing to listen and act on God’s word.
Do we take the time to talk AND listen to God through regular prayer and silent Holy listening? If and when we sense that God is leading us in a certain direction, do we test out that direction, seeking affirmation from church, family, friends and other trusted sources? We sometimes tease about our Presbyterian polity, but this is the point of it! To gather people of faith to discern the leading of God’s Spirit around particular areas of ministry, and then to test what we have discerned against the understanding of the Spirit-led community? If it what we have seen or dreamed does indeed seem to be God’s gentle hand acting in our lives and our discernment is affirmed, are we bold enough to act, or do we let fear, complacency, routine, or something else stand in the way?
We must listen for, trust in, and act on God’s Spirit in our lives and in our midst if we are to reignite a fire in our faith.
Another way Paul proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ was by going to where the people were. “On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.” They did not stay in a synagogue, or put up a new sign outside the synagogue and wait for people to come. Rather, they went out to where the people were.
If we are to rediscover the fire of the early Christians, we too must reach outside of our established church. We cannot just open our doors and wait for people to come in. We cannot simply mow the lawn or make a new sign and wait. Instead, we must look at the needs of the people in the community, the places where there is hurt, where there is need for support and loving community, where there is spiritual longing, and reach out to address it. It is our responsibility as people of God. It is where our tour guide is leading us.
Sometimes it’s more comfortable to stay in here, though. In here, we know what to expect. We know our friends; we know our fellow travelers on the way. In here, we can have control over the culture, the traditions, the rules, and the expectations. Out there, it’s all changing and changing faster than we can imagine. The culture is decreasingly “religious,” but increasingly “spiritual,” and frankly we don’t know how to address that. It’s more comfortable to keep our ways and trust what we know, but searching out the unknown ways to proclaim Christ’s message and share his love beyond our church building is mandatory. In doing this, we will find the fire of faith rekindled.
Lastly, when Paul proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ he didn’t limit who was to be reached. The vision that brought Paul to Macedonia was a vision of a man who asked him to come over and help. Yet, as the story develops, he finds something different, “a certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God. … The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”
If we are to once again become on fire with the gospel message, we must not limit God by defining the people we are called to reach. We can seek the unexpected person who might be longing for the transformative message of Christ’s love, and risk sharing the gospel message. We must be open to the idea that the Spirit may take us to unexpected people in unexpected place. She may pull us into relationship with people who are sitting outside the gates, outside the church, outside the usual relationships and organizations of society. Following the steps of the Spirit may bring our journey to places we never imagined to go, meeting people we never imagined to know.
With whom might God be calling us to share our faith?
Let’s return to Susan, the woman with whom we began with, who was feeling as if she wasn’t growing and changing despite her church activities, despite her commitment, despite her faith. I imagine Susan could be any of us; Susan could be many of us. Story after story, study after study, tells us there are people like Susan in many congregations, people who aren’t experiencing the spiritual transformation for which they hoped. As one Christian missiologist observed, “They came to us seeking God, and we gave them church instead.”
Many congregations, despite their best intentions, seem to have lost focus and give those seeking Jesus a slate of church activities rather than avenues for spiritual growth that can be truly transformational. In our visioning process this is exactly what we are trying to avoid. We have a whole slew of church activities out there on the walls and it would be easy to let that process simply re-organize the things we have always done. Yet that is not the point. The point is to discern what steps the Spirit is calling us to make. The point is to discover our areas of passion and commitment. The point is to try together, as a congregation, to get a vision for what God is doing in our midst and calling us to do in our community, in our world!
Our church, like Christian communities of faith throughout all time and space, exists to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, to share God’s love that is forgiving, accepting, healing, and free. We, as people who are a part of this specific and global community of faith, must ensure that our activities are in alignment with this purpose and in step with the Spirit’s leading. By refocusing on this, we can transform the smoldering embers of faith into brilliantly burning flames.