The Model Church
We have been studying the book of Acts on Wednesday nights, and, for several weeks now, we have considered the events of Pentecost recorded at the beginning of the book: the Holy Spirit is poured out, empowering the disciples to speak in languages they had never learned; a questioning crowd gathers in response; Peter preaches the first gospel sermon, that Jesus has been raised from the dead and declared to be Lord and Christ by God; and forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit is offered to those who believe this message, repent, and are immersed into the name of Jesus. As a result, some 3,000 respond and are added to the church.
The end of the chapter, 2:42-27, offers a summary statement of life in this new community of believers. We examined this passage this past week, though we did not quite make it through all the material I intended. But that merely presents an opportunity for a lesson that would have been missed by those not in the class who are now reading this article.
Luke tells us that the Jerusalem church devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42). These are all familiar actions to us, to the point that that I fear we can take them for granted. Yet these early Christians reoriented their lives around these activities. And there is real danger in neglecting any of them.
When the church is not steeped in the apostolic teaching – for us, not delivered directly but mediated through the Scriptures – it ends up shaped by culture rather than Christ, with a thin veneer of Jesus to give authority to whatever is popular. When the church does not share in life together, individuals live in isolation, rather than in the edifying community God intended for his people. When the church does not value the breaking of bread – that is what we typically call the Lord’s Supper – it fails to proclaim the very act of God, the death and resurrection of Christ, that called it into existence. When the church does not practice fervent prayer, it ignores the powerful access God has given to his children as their Father.
The unfortunate truth is that, while we practice all of these things, we are a pale reflection of those halcyon days in Jerusalem. Does our concern for the apostles’ teaching inspire us to be fervently evangelistic like those in Jerusalem? Even after they were scattered by persecution, they went everywhere preaching the word (Acts 8:1-4). Does our love for the Lord transcend material things, to the point that our fellowship extends even to a willingness to share all we have with our brothers and sisters (2:44-45)? Do we celebrate the Lord’s Supper as the high point of our assembly, an enacted sermon that tells who we are and what Jesus has done for us, or is it a ritual we go through thoughtlessly? Are our prayers like those of the early church, recorded as praying together all throughout Acts?
If we are honest, I think we must admit we often do not measure up. I don’t mean that primarily as an indictment – we must remember that MANY churches in the 1st century fell short of this model, and they were still God’s people! But it should challenge us to always be striving after what God would have us to be.
The larger point is that this new way of life resulted in them having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (2:47). You see, when the church practices these things, it is not just beneficial for us. There is an attractiveness, an energy, that draws outsiders in. They were praising God, they were organizing their lives around each another and prayer and God’s word. And God added to their numbers daily.
When we think that the church is unattractive or stagnant or apathetic – and we probably all think that at times, and, at least sometimes, we are right – we would do well to reread this passage and ask ourselves: what is missing? The gospel has not changed. God is still at work. People still need deliverance.
What are we doing about it?
Do Not Grow Weary
Baseball season is now underway, and the World Champion Houston Astros unveiled their banner at the home opener this past Monday. Even if you were not watching the game, you probably saw it on the news – things did not go smoothly. But, to be fair, they had no prior experience in unveiling a World Championship banner.
I am new to this area, but not to Astros fandom. One of my earliest memories in sports is attending a game at the Dome in the late 80s with Nolan Ryan on the mound. I had a set of commemorative baseballs on display in my room as a boy, featuring four of the stars of the early 90s – Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, of course, but also Doug Drabek and, I believe, Greg Swindell. I scrapped together enough money as a college student to drive over from Austin and catch a game of the NLDS against the Braves when they made the World Series in ’05.
The point is, I know how long the journey to unveiling that banner was. Along the way, there were some really good teams who suffered heartbreaking near-misses.More recently, there was period of 3 years, 2011-2013, when the Astros lost more than 100 games every season. Their cumulative winning percentage for those 3 seasons was the worst for any team in half a century; they even accomplished the rare feat of being the worst team in baseball in each of those 3 seasons individually, an achievement matched only 4 times before.
They were not just bad. They were historically bad.
But there was a plan in place throughout all of those long years. Trading away any and all major league assets allowed them to restock the farm system. Their losing record allowed them to pick at the top of the draft. They were laying the foundation for better things ahead. The rallying cry for fans during those years was “Trust the Process.” And those who were faithful and loyal and did not lose hope were rewarded for their endurance with a World Series victory at last.
There is a lesson in this for the people of God. In our individual lives, we will all experience peaks and valleys. The church as a whole goes through highs and lows, good times and bad times. But in the midst of these ups and downs, we have the exhortation of Paul: And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9).
Paul reveals one of the secrets of a life spent in service to the Lord: he refused to quit. He kept going, even in the midst of adversity, when others had fallen aside. The weariness Paul experienced was temporary; the hope he expresses is eternal. In due season, we will reap.
It reminds me of how he winds up the great chapter on resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15. After reminding his readers of his preaching on the resurrection, of the fact that Christ was raised from the dead and given a kingdom, and that one day, we will be raised like him, he reaches his conclusion. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). Christ has been raised – the victory has been won! Your work is not wasted. So get to it.
May we all remain faithful and loyal even in the midst of adversity. May we all hold on to the hope that we have in Christ, confident that victory awaits us. May we all endeavor to build for God’s kingdom, knowing that it will produce results both here and hereafter.
Let’s get to work.
Where Have You Been, Gehazi?
We have been looking at episodes from the books of Samuel and Kings on Sunday evenings since my arrival here. These are stories many of us heard as children that we have perhaps not thought of in a long time. But we can still learn a great deal from them, in terms of who God is and what he expects from his people.
One of those stories we examined recently was that of the Syrian general, Naaman, recorded in 2 Kings 5. You might remember this one. Naaman was a great man with a problem: he was a leper. So he goes to see the prophet Elisha, who gives him a simple instruction: go and wash in the Jordan River 7 times and be cleansed. Naaman is outraged! The Jordan was filthy, far inferior to the waters of Syria; why didn’t he do something stupendous, come and wave his hands and say some magic words? But one of his men prevails on him to do this small thing, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child.
But there is a sad epilogue to this narrative that we did not cover. Naaman returns to Elisha, praising the Lord as the only true God, and offering gifts of silver and gold and fine clothing. Elisha refuses all of those, telling him to return home in peace. But Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, has other ideas. He catches up to Naaman and says, My master has sent me to say, “There have just now come to me from the hill country of Ephraim two young men of the sons of the prophets. Please give them a talent of silver and two changes of clothing” (2 Kings 5:22). Naaman actually gives him 2 talents instead. That’s about 150 lbs of silver – worth about $40,000 in today’s market. You can see why Gehazi would be so eager.
But Elisha was aware of all of this. When Gehazi returned, he confronted him: Where have you been, Gehazi? Gehazi tried to lie his way out of it. But Elisha was a prophet – he knew all that transpired. And he pronounced sentence: “The leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and to your descendants forever.” So he went out from his presence a leper, like snow (v. 25, 27).
Gehazi’s actions make a sorry conclusion to a great story. He made several mistakes:
For one, he thought Elisha had let Naaman off too easily. See, my master has spared this Naaman the Syrian, in not accepting from his hand what he brought (v. 20). In other words, he resented that God’s mercy had flowed so freely to Naaman – he knew better than God!
Secondly, Gehazi dared to take God’s name in vain. By that, I don’t mean that he cursed. As the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something from him (v. 20). Gehazi is ostensibly a servant of God, and yet he is going to use that as a cover to lie and cheat and steal.
Finally, the root issue is that Gehazi found security in possessions rather than in God. He hid the money and clothes he got from Naaman and lied to Elisha about it. Perhaps he resented being a prophet’s servant for so many years with nothing to show for it. He decided it was time to look out for number one.
In this light, Gehazi’s sin sounds remarkably contemporary. He was led off track because of his desire for the good life and his trust in himself rather than trusting in God. And for that, he is one of only 3 people in Scripture said to be struck with leprosy.
I think that many in our culture would say that Gehazi was merely being a shrewd businessman – he saw an opportunity and seized it. That sort of self-reliance and ingenuity is viewed in some quarters as the American way. Yet God is very clear: it is not his way.
And we are confronted with the question we face, again and again, when we hold our lives up to Scripture: will we allow ourselves to be shaped by God’s story, or by the world around us?
At the Feet of Jesus
Have you ever noticed in the Gospel accounts how often someone kneels in front of Jesus? How often someone is “at the feet” of Jesus?
Those feet were fondly caressed by an adoring mother in the manger. They walked through the carpentry shop. They were supposed to follow the family from the temple, yet stayed behind.
The feet of Jesus stepped into the Jordan at baptism and later walked on the Sea of Galilee. Those feet stood on the mountain preaching and walked a thousand miles helping the hurting. The feet of Jesus kicked over the tables of those who made the house of the Lord a mockery. They did not run when His accusers approached in the Garden of Gethsemane in response. The feet of Jesus walked up the hill to Golgotha and were nailed to a cross.
Think what a privilege it is to sit at the feet of Jesus. When I think of someone sitting at the feet of Jesus, I always turn to a story recorded in Luke 10. Jesus is in Bethany at the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. Martha is busy preparing a meal for her guests. But Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus, hearing his word and listening to his teachings.
And there were so many others we read about who sat at the feet of Jesus. In the home of Simon the Pharisee, a woman found forgiveness at Jesus’ feet (Luke7). There was also a woman brought and flung down at Jesus’ feet in John 8. She had been caught in adultery, but she, too, found forgiveness there.
While some found forgiveness, others found healing. Matthew tells us, “And great crowds came to Him, bringing with them the lame, crippled, blind, mute, and many others, and they put them down at His feet; and He healed them” (Matthew 15:30). Outcasts and rejects find acceptance at Jesus’ feet. Worldly wounds are healed, and calloused souls are softened and saved by his touch. Others found there a place of prayer. Jairus chose to pray at the feet of Jesus when his daughter was at the point of death (Mark 5:22-23).
Some came to the feet of Jesus to find a place of thanksgiving and rest. Luke 17 gives an account of Jesus cleansing 10 lepers. Only one returned to give thanks. That one fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him for healing. In Luke 8, there is the story of a man who was afflicted by demons, his mind so tortured that he had no rest. Jesus cast the demons from him, and in Luke 8:35 we see him in his right mind and at rest. Luke tells us, quite naturally, he wanted to continue to rest at the feet of Jesus.
We all need to spend some time at the feet of Jesus. We will find it a place of forgiveness and learning. A place of prayer and refreshment. A place where we can be at rest.
Repenting in Dust and Ashes
This past week marked Ash Wednesday. What is that all about, anyway? It’s not in the Bible, obviously. Tertullian records the use of ashes as a sign of repentance as early as the 3rd century, an idea that emerged from Scripture. There, ashes were associated with humility and mortality, fasting and remorse. If you sinned, sometimes you would sprinkle ashes on your head as a sign of repentance. They reminded you that you were mortal and that you will eventually become ashes after you die.
In the 7th or 8th century, the church incorporated this idea into the practice of Lent, the period of fasting before Easter. Of course, Lent is also not in the Bible. We will talk about its origins a bit in our sermon this morning. But, at root, it is a time to think about your own temptations, sins, and repentance.
It is easy to simply dismiss these as unauthorized by Scripture. I obviously do not advocate practicing Ash Wednesday or Lent. But the underlying principal is a good one. It is so important, in fact, that it should not be focused on for a mere 40 days every year. We ought always to evaluate ourselves in light of God’s Word. To abandon the sin we have perhaps let casually take hold in our life. To take time to renew our desire to serve God and to be the people that God intends us to be. With that thought in mind, consider a passage commonly read in conjunction with Ash Wednesday, Isaiah 59:12-20.
For our transgressions are multiplied before you, and our sins testify against us, for our transgressions are with us, and we know our iniquities (v. 12). If you were to count all the sins we committed in just one week – not just our deeds, but things we ought to do and do not – they would be numerous. We must honestly evaluate ourselves and acknowledge that changes need to be made.
[T]ransgressing, and denying the Lord, and turning back from following our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words. Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.(v. 13-15a). Isaiah describes some of the things he has seen that are wrong. Are we guilty of any of these? Let us all examine ourselves. Do I really love God above all else? Where do I need to improve in my life? That is the first part of a life lived penitently before God: to look at ourselves and recognize our sins.
The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak. According to their deeds, so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render repayment. So they shall fear the name of the Lord from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun; for he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the Lord drives. “And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord. (v. 15b-20).
Here is the second part: to look away from ourselves and look to God. God saw our sin, and he was appalled at what he saw. But most appalling of all was that there was no one to intervene, no one to rescue humanity from its sins. So God in Christ did that himself. That is what the good news is all about.
We need to be cognizant of these things, and not just at a special time of year. May we all look deep within ourselves and acknowledge our sins. May we then look to Christ, who won the battle for us, and receive forgiveness. It will help us to grow in our appreciation for what God has done for us, not only through becoming more aware of our shortcomings and refining our character, but in becoming more aware of just how much our Lord loves us.