In the Early Church, “…an immediate revelation of the mind of the Master was the one pressing religious need for which all craved.”
Thomas M. Lindsay
The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries
"Let us think of one another and how we can encourage each other to love and do good deeds. And let us not hold aloof from our church meetings, as some do. Let us do all we can to help one another’s faith, and this the more earnestly as we see the final day drawing ever nearer." Hebrews 10:24,25
These two verses are an often-used series of admonitions to keep us serious about our church-attendance, but I wonder if we've ever really realized what kind of "church" is being described here. In the original Greek, let's look at the verbs and nouns used to describe how we're meant to be approaching our shared experience of the Body:
But here's the secret: Millennials aren't losing interest in church because it asks or shows or costs too much; they are losing interest because it asks and shows and costs too little. My observation is that the Christian Millennials we know want it to cost more, to cost them everything. They want to "observe" and study each other, to "provoke" each other's belief, to "gather together" to feast upon Jesus, to call each other as expert "witnesses" of the real thing, "so much very, exceedingly."
Are you and I ready to be equal to that sort of Church for them?
"For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:33,34
All of you reading this certainly know my passion for the Early Church, for learning the ins and outs of what made their experience of Jesus so explosive and so world-changing. And I think what keeps me up at night about it is that nothing - not Jesus' life, not His death, not His resurrection, not His ascension, not the work of the Holy Spirit - none of it has changed from back then and yet, on our end, we so often think, "Hmmm, doesn't it all seem really different back then?"
No! Again, nothing has changed! "Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever." If we want to see the Book of Acts alive in our day, this prophetic passage from Jeremiah 31 is like a checklist for the fullness of the experience:
Is that the sense of the Kingdom of Heaven as it pours through us? Through you?
"The form of Jesus Christ takes form in man. Man does not take on an independent form of his own, but what gives him form and what maintains him in the new form is always solely the form of Jesus Christ Himself. It is therefore not a vain imitation or repetition of Christ’s form but Christ’s form itself which takes form in man... So the Church is not a religious community of worshippers of Christ but is Christ Himself, who has taken form among men..."
"What matters in the Church is not religion but the form of Christ, and its taking form amidst a band of men. If we allow ourselves to lose sight of this, even for an instant, we inevitably relapse into that program-planning for the ethical or religious shaping of the world, which was where we set out from."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics
"Out of that Upper Room which had been the place of fears [the disciples] burst with the glad Good News. They smiled at poverty, rejoiced under stripes, were elated at their humiliations, sang in midnight prisons, courted death and shared with every man, everywhere, their own abundant life. God had matched them against that need and they were spiritually adequate. I see nothing, absolutely nothing, that will get the church of today out from behind closed doors except it be this one thing – Pentecost. Increase the ornateness of its ritual as you will, improve the quality and quantity of its religious education as you may, raise the standards of qualifications of the ministry as high as you can, pour money without stint into the coffers of the church – give it everything – everything except this one thing that Pentecost gave, and you are merely ornamenting the dead. Until this sacred Fact takes place, preaching is only lecturing, praying is only repeating formulas, services cease to be service – it all remains earth-bound, circumscribed, inadequate, dead.”
E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of Every Road
The importance of Jesus' dwelling both inside us and at the right hand of the Father is that He is constantly at work to make both sanctuaries the same. He is always working to bring the heavenly to life in your daily life. The ultimate stage for His "On earth as it is in heaven" experiment is your human heart.
"There is a great deal that we should like to say about this high priesthood [of Jesus], but it is not easy to explain to you since you seem so slow to grasp spiritual truth. At a time when you should be teaching others, you need teachers yourselves to repeat to you the ABC of God’s revelation to men. You have become people who need a milk diet and cannot face solid food! For anyone who continues to live on 'milk' is obviously immature — he simply has not grown up. 'Solid food' is only for the adult, that is, for the man who has developed by experience his power to discriminate between what is good and bad for him." Hebrews 5:11-14
Along these lines, can we ponder for a moment - have a candid little talk about - the nature of the Church, as we know it? In reality, most people identify "church" entirely with Sunday morning, with "services," with brick-and-mortar edifices down the street from their house. Perhaps, if they've lifted their gaze a little higher, they can move past those conceptions and talk about the worldwide Church, the unseen spiritual fellowship of all believers. Yet the word that Jesus used for "church" - I'm sure we've most of us heard it before - was ἐκκλησία, "ecclesia." And I want you to read what that word would've actually meant in the ears of the 1st Century Jews and Gentiles; this is from a book called The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries:
“To the Jew, the Ecclesia had been the assembly of the congregation of Israel, summoned to meet at the door of the Tabernacle of Jehovah by men blowing silver trumpets. To the Greek the Ecclesia was the sovereign assembly of the free Greek city-state, summoned by the herald blowing his horn through the streets of the town. To the followers of Jesus it was to be the congregation of the redeemed and therefore of the free, summoned by His heralds to continually appear in the presence of their Lord, who was always to be in the midst of them.”
And that's where I want to tie in to Hebrews 5:11-14. For Jesus to be present with us in a higher "We are the Body of Christ" sort of way, how many people do we think are truly necessary? 5,000? 1,000? 50? 12? Well, what did Jesus Himself say?
“For wherever two or three people come together in my name, I am there, right among you!” (Matthew 18:20)
Two or three! So anytime two or three of us - or more - are together, should not our quickest activity be a joint-realization of His present aliveness and activity in our midst? If even just two together can represent and embody the Body, we nearly never are not in the ἐκκλησία, are we?
So at what point do you and I suddenly think we need a teacher or pastor in this numbers' game; how quickly do we relegate "solid food" work to professionals, and to ourselves "milk"? Is it with congregations of 10, 20, 100, 500 - what is our own personal threshold? At what point do we think we know "enough" and, from there, allow another person to go "further" on our behalf?
Random question for you: Have you ever read any of Blaise Pascal's Pensees? Well, whether or not you have, consider this one - No. 149 - it's got some dark humor and zing on its meaning:
“We do not care about our reputation in towns where we are only passing through. But when we have to stay some time we do care. How much time does it take? A time proportionate to our vain and paltry existence.”
Do you see the point he's trying to make about our self-importance and self-perception? Well, in our present consideration, I'd rewrite his words like this:
"We do not need another teacher in situations where one, two, or a few, are gathered together. But when we meet at 'Church,' or in greater numbers, we suddenly do. How many people in a room does it take? A number inversely proportionate to our belief in the alive presence of Jesus."
Friends, in 1 John 2, John, the best friend and closest confidant of Jesus, writes to us:
“Yet I know that the touch of his Spirit never leaves you, and you don’t really need a human teacher. You know that his Spirit teaches you about all things, always telling you the truth and never telling you a lie. So, as he has taught you, live continually in him.” (1 John 2:27)
If your favorite Christian writer stopped writing, if your pastor walked off the stage and called you up in his stead, what would you have to share for the good of the Body? My friends, because Jesus is alive and because He delights to reveal Himself to His followers, we should never not have anything to speak of Jesus. Truly, He gives Himself as "solid food" to all who ask. Are you asking? Do you want the more He's offering?
The power and unity of the whole worldwide Body of Christ begins with my own - and your own - accession to, and appropriation of, all the glorious things we're offered in personal Union with the living Jesus. Your inner life is the landscape of, the building-block toward, the showroom for, making the Church what it was intended to become.
"[The new believers of Pentecost, along with the original group of believers] continued steadily learning the teaching of the apostles, and joined in their fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer. Everyone felt a deep sense of awe, while many miracles and signs took place through the apostles. All the believers shared everything in common; they sold their possessions and goods and divided the proceeds among the fellowship according to individual need. Day after day they met by common consent in the Temple; they broke bread together in their homes, sharing meals with simple joy. They praised God continually and all the people respected them. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were finding salvation." Acts 2:42-47
These six verses, arguably the best-known in all the New Testament for describing the lifestyle of the Early Church, strike me as a beautiful picture of the three-part blend that our own lives should always be: an ecstatic reaction to the new life we've been given; a direct continuation of the life of Jesus through ours; a holy practicality that lives out the present temporal circumstances in light of the eternal. Consider these verses again through the lens of that heavenly blend:
They continued steadily learning the teaching of the apostles – thrilled, no doubt, by the depths and heights of all that Jesus offered; receiving, through the apostles, the direct words of Jesus; needing to know, to understand, more of what they’d just said 'yes' to – and joined in their fellowship – because, my goodness! what power, what joy, what love was offered up there; the actual power and joy and love of Jesus as directed now through His Body; a power and joy and love they needed to come under in order to be filled by – in the breaking of bread – because there’s nothing better than a meal with your newfound brothers and sisters; meals were a significant place where Jesus shared His life with His brothers and sisters; and because, well, they needed to eat somewhere! – and in prayer – because this Savior was ALIVE, He could be talked to anytime, anywhere; He loved to show Himself and delighted to talk to His friends and followers; because the apostles and new believers had very little idea what to do next.
Everyone felt a deep sense of awe – because they were surrounded by the glory of Jesus; because Jesus was consistently manifesting His life through lives; because we cannot help being awestruck by things heavenly and awesome – while many miracles and signs took place through the apostles – after all, they were “filled with the Holy Spirit”; Jesus just wanted to keep doing His thing; miracles and signs were simply a practical outflowing of heaven that bore present fruit in lives. All the believers shared everything in common – Who needs this stuff when you’ve got a whole Kingdom?; Jesus lived out His humility through living commonly with commoners; the new believers were from all over the Roman Empire and hadn’t brought enough clothes and food and money to last for, well, who knows how long! – they sold their possessions and goods and divided the proceeds among the fellowship according to individual need – Jesus and His Kingdom are all that matters, not this stuff I used to be so busy accumulating; the spirit of Jesus was rich with selflessness and humble, kindhearted burden-sharing; if we’re all part of the same Kingdom-family, why not internally take care of each other, since we’re now brothers and sisters!
Day after day they met by common consent in the Temple – they couldn’t get enough of Jesus, His Word, His life-in-them, and each other; Jesus had walked His day-to-day with the disciples and still desired the same; why let the fire of the Holy Spirit smolder when He is always ready to self-stoke? – they broke bread together in their homes, sharing meals with simple joy – the joy of new life was always bursting forth, even as they ate; Jesus, again, loved to pass His meals with all sorts of people; again, we all need to eat: Why not with each other, since we’re all now One? They praised God continually – How could they not! so rich was their newly found inheritance; Jesus always praised His Father; practically speaking, we cannot help continually doing what consumes our hearts – and all the people respected them – these were people alight with joy, kindness and love; Jesus was living His perfect life through them; the world, for all its arguments, cannot argue with the unvarnished Way of Jesus. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were finding salvation – because the new believers lived up to their heavenly privileges; Jesus never stops seeking the lost; and “the light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out” (John 1:5).
May that "blend" be as richly evidenced in my life, in your life, today!
In reading through an excellent book on George Washington's interim years between the War and his presidency (Edward J. Larson's The Return of George Washington), I've been struck by his building, burning desire that a Constitution should be composed in order to solidify a national union of the states. His fear was that the disparate parts would become so disunited that the War with England would've been for naught...
The Church's Constitution has already been composed - it's Jesus, the Word Incarnate - and our "states" are the individual members of the Body of Christ. Our personal Union with Jesus constitutes the only path to Union in the Body; we will only be one with each other as we are one with Him.
It's Union or nothing. There is no middle path except the straight and narrow.
More and more, all the time, I really do believe in the Body of Christ - in our call and our potential - and that we are to function just exactly as Jesus once lived, moved and breathed. Oh, but only by the Spirit of Jesus and by being completely possessed by that Spirit can we have even the beginning of a hope of functioning as we're meant to. May we, everyday, individually, venture into His life and know that life fully and then allow it to utterly overtake our own. Only His life through us can make us the Body of Christ.
What a night we experienced together in Shove Chapel, November 1st! Thank you to all of you who joined us for the first weekly gathering; we can't wait to see what next week holds.
For a taste of the "Word" side of our "Word & Worship" format, here was Sunday's message:
And here was a view from the back during our time of Worship...
What a night! Thank you, Jesus!
In late-1805, with Napoleon at the height of his military and imperial power, he joined battle against both the Russians and Austrians (backed by the English) at the Battle of Austerlitz. By daring design, complete preparation and expert day-of-action movement, he then stunned the world by defeating both armies with seeming ease. As was the custom of the day, his men exulted whenever they captured an enemy's standard and brought it back to lay at the Emperor's feet. But even more of a thrill was the capture, and thus the removal for all times from any future fields-of-battle, of an enemy's cannons and artillery-pieces.
The Vendome Column is the product of the 1,200 bronze cannons and guns captured from the allied enemies at the field of Austerlitz. Napoleon's statue literally stands atop the melted-down spoils of war.
The glory of the Grand Armée is this: that even despite the loss of blood, limbs, lives and men on that battlefield, that this pillar stands for all time as a testament to their combined sacrifice and power. Even though those men are long dead and mostly forgotten, those melted-down remnants of their victory will always rise into the azure Paris sky.
My friends, may we live like the Vendome Column for Jesus. Instead of cannons and artillery, may it be us whose lives are melted-down, burned-away and shaped-together into One Church that lifts up the Glory of Jesus. May the stories of our lives rise up and spiral their way toward the Heavenlies, where our Conqueror stands relaxed and exultant.
Just like the Grand Armée, our lives are short; the days flee past; 210 years from now, we will be, like them, long forgotten. Yet if our blood, limbs, lives, days, weeks, months and years are consumed by Jesus, we are doing our part to erect a monument to His Glory today. How much better to be a nonentity for His purposes and yet give Him eternal praise, than to be "someone" in the world's eyes and, like chaff in the wind, forgotten tomorrow.
Let us abandon the Self and be wrapped into this column rising to the Throne-room. From age to age, He stands, ever victorious.
In finishing The Other Country, a book that walks through all the shorter Pauline epistles, I tried to imagine Paul, after finishing the words of 2 Timothy, being led off to his trial before Nero and, then, to his death. From there, I became captivated by the scene that might've occurred had Paul been given a funeral by his friends...
Here's the ending of The Other Country, utilizing the Apostle Paul's own words as a eulogy.
Let’s imagine for a moment that we are present at Paul’s funeral, a non-flashy, hastily-arranged memorial service, but one attended by all of the Twelve still living, as well as, of course, Timothy, Titus and so many people from all the churches all over the Roman world that Paul had either planted or watered.
Not unexpectedly, it’s Timothy who walks to the front to deliver the eulogy and, again not unexpectedly, he won’t be delivering his own words. He has in hand an address that Paul himself has written. As always, Paul will have the last word…
My friends, my brothers and sisters, how grateful I am that you would be here today. As I have gone to be with Him, the Living One, may I offer some final thoughts along the lines of everything you’ve ever heard from me:
“For you have certainly heard of my past career in the Jewish religion, how I persecuted the Church of God with fanatical zeal and, in fact, did my best to destroy it. I was ahead of most of my contemporaries in the Jewish religion, and had a greater enthusiasm for the old traditions. But then the time came for God (who had chosen me from the moment of my birth, and then called me by his grace) to reveal his Son within me so that I might proclaim him to the non-Jewish world…
“Oh, I am deeply grateful to our Lord Jesus Christ (to whom I owe all that I have accomplished) for trusting me enough to appoint me his minister, despite the fact that I had previously blasphemed his name, persecuted his Church and damaged his cause. I believe he was merciful to me because what I did was done in the ignorance of a man without faith, and then he poured out his grace upon me, giving me tremendous faith in, and love for, himself.
“And I was made a minister of that Gospel by the grace he gave me, and by the power with which he equipped me. Yes, to me, less than the least of all Christians, has God given this grace, to enable me to proclaim to the Gentiles the incalculable riches of Christ, and to make plain to all men the meaning of that secret which he who created everything in Christ has kept hidden from the creation until now. The purpose is that all the angelic powers should now see the complex wisdom of God’s plan being worked out through the Church, in conformity to that timeless purpose which he centered in Jesus, our Lord. It is in this same Jesus, because we have faith in him, that we dare, even with confidence, to approach God.
“And I am not ashamed of the Gospel. I see it as the very power of God working for the salvation of everyone who believes it, both Jew and Greek. I see in it God’s plan for imparting righteousness to men, a process begun and continued by their faith. For, as the scripture says: ‘The just shall live by faith.’
“Since then it is by faith that you are justified, may you grasp the fact that you have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have confidently entered into this new relationship of grace, and here we take our stand, in happy certainty of the glorious things he has for us in the future. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we have only a hope of future joys — we can be full of joy here and now even in our trials and troubles.
“And God forbid that I should have boasted about anything or anybody except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, which meant that the world was a dead thing to me and I was a dead man to the world.
“You are those to whom God has now planned to give a vision of the full wonder and splendor of his secret plan for the sons of men. And the secret is simply this: Christ in you! Yes, Christ in you bringing with him the hope of all glorious things to come.
“I have become absolutely convinced that neither death nor life, neither messenger of Heaven nor monarch of earth, neither what happens today nor what may happen tomorrow, neither a power from on high nor a power from below, nor anything else in God’s whole world has any power to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord!
“I wish you could see how all this is working out for your benefit, and how the more grace God gives, the more thanksgiving will redound to his glory. This is the reason why we must never collapse. The outward man does indeed suffer wear and tear, but every day the inward man receives fresh strength. These little troubles (which are really so transitory) are winning for you a permanent, glorious and solid reward out of all proportion to your pain. For we are looking all the time not at the visible things but at the invisible. The visible things are transitory: it is the invisible things that are really permanent.
“When I was a little child I talked and felt and thought like a little child. Now that I am a man my childish speech and feeling and thought have no further significance for me. At present we are men looking at puzzling reflections in a mirror. The time will come when we shall see reality whole and face to face! At present all you know is a little fraction of the truth, but the time will come when you shall know it as fully as God now knows you! In this life we have three great lasting qualities — faith, hope and love. But the greatest of them is love.
“For you, my friends, are citizens of Heaven; your outlook goes beyond this world to the hopeful expectation of the savior who will come from Heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will re-make these wretched bodies of ours to resemble his own glorious body, by that power of his which makes him the master of everything that is.
“As for me, I know now that the last drops of my life have been poured out for God. The glorious fight that God gave me I have fought. The course that I was set I have finished, and I have kept the faith. The present for me now holds the crown of righteousness which God, the true judge, will give to those who have loved what they have seen of him.”
My friends, at the center of everything… Jesus. May He conform you to His image and may we meet again someday in the glories of His wonderful Presence.
Until then, and with my great love,