Monday, June 05, 2017

Pentecost—Do we need to speak in tongues?

One Hundred and Eleven years ago this past April, a revival began in a church on Azusa Street, Los Angeles, California. Reports at the time said that Pentecost had come again, and the movement that grew out of the revival has spread around the world. David Barrett’s research into global Christianity shows that Pentecostals have grown from less than one percent of Christians around the world at that time to about 25% of the worldwide church today.

Some people evaluate Pentecostalism positively. In many parts of the world Pentecostalism has reached into conditions of poverty and helped people to transform their lives spiritually and economically. We call this phenomenon “redemption and lift”. In Chile the Pentecostal Church transformed the lives of the poorest people, who had been abandoned by the church as a whole. [I did not find the reference for this observation, which comes from missiological writings on Chile, but did find another helpful article on the Chilean Pentecostal Church here.]

I have seen and studied Pentecostalism primarily in Zimbabwe. There, what we sometimes call “the prosperity gospel” has functioned to give people hope. As one Pentecostal preacher said to me, “prosperity means you will always have an idea of what to do.” Such hope helps people to survive in Zimbabwe’s failed economy.

Some people evaluate Pentecostalism negatively. Sometimes it has encouraged enthusiasm to the border of hysteria. I have also seen an almost artificial enthusiasm in Zimbabwe. Our family went one Sunday to a church called Victory Fellowship. At one point in the service the organ played a chord, the percussionist signalled on the cymbals, and everyone started praying in tongues. Another chord signalled the end of the Spirit’s intervention, and everyone stopped. I was just glad that the Holy Spirit had read the bulletin.

A friend of mine told me about a Pentecostal preacher he went to hear in Bulawayo. When the preacher started to pray, his friends fell on the ground as the preacher pushed “power” at them. Finally my friend also fell, not because he felt the power, but because he didn’t want to stand out in the crowd.

So how do we evaluate Pentecostalism today? Should we all seek the gift of speaking in tongues? Or is there something else going on that is more basic, more important for us to grasp and to hold on to this morning. Listen to the Scriptures we read this morning.

The Texts
Acts 2:1-21: At that first Pentecost, the giving of the Spirit led to speaking in tongues, the proclamation of the gospel, clear evidence that the end of time is here, and an invitation to salvation.

Jesus had told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit. They did so, spending time gathered together in prayer (Acts 1:12-14). The Day of Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) came 50 days after the Passover. Jews from around the world had gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover and for the Feast of Weeks. The Holy Spirit fell on the disciples and they began speaking praises to God loudly, using the languages of the people gathered for the feast. Since these Jews heard them speaking in tongues, we can guess that they had been gathered near the temple, where the assembled Jews were meeting. They responded to what they heard with amazement, some scoffing and some praising.

Their response gave Peter the opportunity to preach to the people, and he took it. Peter gave a straightforward sermon with these main points:
Verses 1-21:
·         What you see is God’s Spirit moving in God’s people. God has intervened in the world, as the prophet Joel told us we should expect.
·         This intervention means that God’s Spirit is ready to fall on all who open themselves to the Spirit, leading to even greater wonders than you have seen this morning and leading to the salvation of all who so open themselves.
Verses 22-41
·         Peter then told the people that Jesus, whom they had killed, is indeed the Messiah, and that Jesus had been raised by the dead.
·         He called the people to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus.
·         As a result of Peter’s sermon, many people repented and accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

So, must we speak in tongues? Luke describes what happened here as a great turning to God—what we sometimes call a revival. I see no evidence that he lays out a prescription for how revivals are supposed to take place. When Peter preaches to the people, he calls them to repent. He does not call them to manifest any particular behaviour, such as speaking in tongues, but to repent and be baptized. So Acts 2 is an invitation to turn to God in Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:1-13: Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 11 to 14 has to do with the way that the Corinthian church worshipped God. Corinth was a city with a background in various religions, and the people in the church were used to seeing spiritual phenomena. They were, if you will, an early example of the kind of enthusiasm found at the Azusa Street Mission in 1906.

In this chapter Paul makes a series of statements, thus:
·         You (Corinthians) are used to spiritual phenomena, but you need to understand what is truly of God’s Spirit. His comment reminds me of a Zimbabwean friend’s critique of the Toronto Airport Church: “You Americans are funny. You’re not used to spiritual things, so when you see people barking like a dog or roaring like a lion, you get all excited. We have seen these things in Africa, and we know they are not all from God!”
·         The first characteristic of spiritual phenomena that come from God is that they lead people to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Charismatic gifts lift up Jesus.
·         Charismatic gifts also build up the body of Christ: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”
·         In fact, we can say that the presence of the Spirit (through the gifts of the Spirit) is the presence of Christ, more basic to our identity than anything else, even more basic than being a Jew or a Gentile.

Just as the presence of tongues in Acts 2 was intended to bring people to faith in Jesus, so also the gifts of the Spirit in the Corinthian church were intended to strengthen people’s faith in Christ.

John 7:37-39: In this brief excerpt from a larger sermon, Jesus says that the Spirit refreshes us and strengthens us, a river of life flowing from within [to water all those around us]. You see the same basic point in all three passages: God gives the Holy Spirit to draw us to a closer walk with Jesus and to build up the body of Christ. There is no room in spiritual gifting for anyone to boast of their own spiritual progress. The point is always to come closer to Jesus.

The answer to the question in our sermon title, “Do we need to speak in tongues?” is simple: No. Then why do Luke and Paul say so much about spiritual gifts?

God gives spiritual gifts to draw us to God. The point in all of this is not that God wants us to speak in tongues—whether unknown languages or ecstatic speech; the point is that God wants us to find life in Christ.

This same purpose is behind revivals such as the Pentecostal movement that began at the Azusa Street Mission. Consider with me a few such revivals that took place in the early 20th Century.

1) The Welsh Revival: There was a remarkable revival in Wales in 1904-5. It was marked by extensive Bible reading and constant prayer, leading to repentance and new life. The services in which people met were emotional, and they were similar to the Pentecost of Los Angeles in 1906. Reports of the revival note that individuals and whole communities were radically changed, so that the police and courts found themselves underemployed.

2) The Indian Revival: The Welsh Revival spread to India in 1906, taking in much of the country in a revival remarkable for its depth and influence. I found an article online from the MB Journal Direction (Fall 1991, 135-142) by Peter Penner, describing the shape that the revival took within the Mennonite Brethren Mission. It spread from national Indian Christians to the MB missionaries, who at first resisted it because it was too emotional. In the end, all joined in a time of deep joy and new life.

The revival was characterized by prayer and repentance. Missionaries confessed their faults, as did Indian Christians. The result was an awareness of God’s presence in every part of their lives. Missionary Abram Friesen characterized the sins revealed and confessed like this: “judgmental and unforgiving attitudes, carelessness in word and deed, lack of family and personal worship, unedifying reading, avarice and failure to tithe, lukewarmness toward God’s cause and people, conceit and spiritual pride, and resistance to complete submission to God.”

3) The Korean Revival: In 1907 revival spread to Korea. A prayer meeting in Pyongyang was the flashpoint. I remember one of my Korean students telling me the story 10 years ago, during the 100th anniversary of the revival—how a Canadian missionary confessed to his Korean colleagues the racism with which he treated them. As the Korean Christians saw their missionary brother broken before God’s Spirit, they in turn began to confess their sins and revival spread across the country. Today Pyongyang is the capital of North Korea; in 1907 it was known as “the Jerusalem of the East”. Again the revival was characterised by repentance and confession, and by intense prayer. Prayer has remained central to life in Korea, as people hold mass prayer meetings in which they seek God’s presence and direction.

Do we need revival today? Of course we do, but revival by its nature is an in-breaking of God’s Spirit. We cannot manufacture it. We cannot make it come. We can have a “Revival Service” or even a series of “Revival Services”, but we cannot make God’s Spirit fall on people any more than the organist at Victory Fellowship could actually control the Holy Spirit by playing the right chord on the organ.

What Should We Do?
What then should we do as we read these texts? We don’t need to speak in tongues (although if God gives the gift for God’s own purposes, we may), but what should we actually do? I believe that we need revival, but, as I said, we cannot manufacture it. So we prepare the soil, waiting for God to sow the seed. We read and study the Bible. We spend time in prayer—extended time in extended prayer. We search our own hearts and lives for anything that would hinder God’s Spirit. Then, like the disciples in Acts 1 and 2, we “wait for the promised Holy Spirit.”

We continue do God’s work as we are already. We keep living our lives, going to work, going to school, spending time with our families and friends. And we wait for God to show up. “Wait” in this context means “expect”. This is not a fruitless “waiting for Godot”. This is an expectant waiting, which God rewards in God’s time.

I think of a friend of mine who this past week described his own experiences of God’s Spirit this year. I think of the way that God revealed the Spirit to me in a time of darkness nine years ago. We don’t control this process; we prepare for it, and when God is ready, Pentecost comes.

Closing Thoughts
I have wondered why the Pentecostal revivals of the early 1900s occurred at that time. There have been other “awakenings”, in which people turn to God, and we can look back and ask: Why at that time? Consider what followed the revivals on the larger human stage: World War One. Within 10 years Europe found itself engulfed by “the war to end all wars”, and the rest of the world found itself deeply affected by the conflict. I wonder if God was preparing people to go through deep waters. I don’t know that, but it matches what we have seen God do at other times in other places.

I have told you my own story of being filled the Holy Spirit—in a series of messages on the infilling of the Holy Spirit brought to the General Conference of the BIC in Zimbabwe in August 1974. I remember well how people pressed forward on the closing night singing “Woza Moya oyiNgcwele” (“Come, Holy Spirit”). I remember well how people sought and received the Spirit even after the meetings were over.

Within a year the country of Zimbabwe was deeply involved in a bush war between nationalist forces (ZIPRA and ZANLA) and the Rhodesian government of the day. The people gathered at that conference were entering a dark time lasting for the next five years. And God gave them the strength that they needed to survive as God’s people. Stephen Ndlovu (later Bishop of the BIC in Zimbabwe and Vice President of MWC) has told many stories of God’s preserving presence in his own life living in the centre of the bush war.

We need revival—but be aware, if God sends the Holy Spirit on us here today, or throughout the churches of Canada and the United States, you can expect that there is a reason. We don’t know what it is; we know only that God cares for us and for the whole of God’s world and does for us what is best. In the meantime we prepare the soil of our lives and wait for God to sow the seed.

Grace Bible Church, 4 June 2017 

Acts 2:1-21
The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

1 Corinthians 12:1-13:
Concerning Spiritual Gifts
12 Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

Unity and Diversity in the Body

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

John 7:37-39:

37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

From Jerusalem to Antioch to Rome

Today we conclude our three part comparison of Palmer Becker’s summary of an Anabaptist identity with the first church in the book of Acts. (Perhaps I should say “an Anabaptist perspective on our Christian identity”. What I am describing belongs, I believe, to all Christians, but is distinctive of an Anabaptist-Mennonite understanding of Christian faith.)
Two weeks ago we considered the first summary statement, “Jesus is the centre of our faith”, by looking at the church begun at Pentecost (Acts 2).
Last week we examined the third summary statement, “Reconciliation is the centre of our work”, through the controversy that threatened to blow up the First Church of Jerusalem in Acts 15—the Council of Jerusalem

Today we conclude with the middle one, “Community is the centre of our life”, by looking at the church as it was in Paul’s experience by the end of Acts 28. I will review the story of Acts briefly up to chapter 28, look at what Paul found in Rome and how he lived there, and then ask what the whole account has to teach us today.

Acts to this point
Acts 2 shows the church formed at Pentecost, less than two months after the crucifixion of Jesus. This was a Jewish church until the movement of Gentiles into their fellowship in Acts 10 and 11. The church was then established in Antioch, 300 miles north, as well as in Jerusalem. The Antioch church sent the new convert, Saul, off with the old apostle, Barnabas, to evangelize Asia Minor, leading to many more Gentile followers of Jesus.

Now the Jewish Christians had to decide if Gentile converts must also become Jews. The resulting controversy between Paul and Barnabas on the one hand and the “circumcisers” on the other, led to Peter’s great statement in Acts 15: “We are saved by grace, even as they are”, and to the decision of the Jerusalem Council that Jesus was all that they needed. Following the council, Paul left for his second missionary journey, now travelling with Silas. Throughout the rest of Acts they travel to Asia Minor (Turkey) and Greece, preaching to Jews and Gentiles in each place. It is an interesting exercise (beyond the bounds of this sermon) to place Paul’s letters within his travels—letters to the Galatians (just before the Jerusalem Council) and to the Corinthians and to Philippi and to Rome itself.

From these letters we learn that a basic purpose of their travels was to collect money for what we can call “The Jerusalem Fund”. The founding church in Jerusalem struggled with difficult economic conditions, as we can see already from Acts 2. From the beginning the first church pooled their resources to care for each other. That practice marked the early church through its first 300 years; it was known as a church who cared for the poor.

In Acts 21 Paul and Silas returned to Jerusalem, taking with them the gift they had collected from the Gentile churches of Asia and Greece. While there, Paul entered the Temple to worship as a Jew (he never stopped being an observant Jew), and his enemies started a riot against him, based on the false claim that he had defiled the Temple by bringing Gentiles into the inner courts, where they were forbidden. The Roman commander in Jerusalem arrested Paul, and he defended himself first before the Sanhedrin and then before the Roman governor, until in Acts 25 he appealed to Caesar. As a Roman citizen, Paul had the right to hear his case tried before Caesar himself, so the new governor (Festus) sent him to Rome to stand before the Emperor. Chapters 26 to 28 detail that journey under military guard, and the verses we heard this morning describe the journey’s end.

Acts 28
Verses 11 to 16 tell about the last stage of the journey, sailing from Malta to the coast of Italy, and then walking from there to Rome. There was already a church in Rome, and believers from the church heard of Paul’s coming. They met him on the road about 30 or 40 miles from Rome and walked into the city with him.

In Rome Paul was placed under house arrest “with a soldier to guard him”. I don’t know if he paid the rent on his house himself or if someone from the church in Rome paid his expenses, nor do I know who covered the guard’s expenses. In any case, Paul had enough freedom to send for the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome (verses 17-29). He presented the gospel to them, as he had wherever he went. Some received the gospel, but the main leadership of the synagogue rejected it, and Paul told them that they had fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy, leading to his continued mission to Gentiles.

Verses 31 and 32 conclude the book:
For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!
Jesus preached the kingdom of God, and the apostles preached Jesus. Here we see that these two proclamations are one and the same. When we say as Anabaptists that Jesus is the centre of our faith, we are saying also that the kingdom of God is the centre of our faith.

We hear the same note, then, in the first church at Pentecost and in this church at Rome 30 years later. In Acts 2 the disciples were “devoted to the apostles’ teaching”—that is, the teachings and ministry of Jesus. In Acts 28 the same focus remains: Paul “proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.” As Becker puts it, “Jesus is the centre of our faith.”

Community is the Centre of Our Lives
What does this survey tell us about community? Jesus, the centre of our faith, is expressed by the way that we live together in community. Reconciliation, the centre of our work, flows out of our lives together in community. What, then, can we say about community?

1. The first church specialized in face-to-face community. In Acts 2 they met in house fellowships. In Acts 15 the two major churches of their time could work out their differences in a face-to-face meeting. Here in Acts 28 the core of the local church walked out 40 miles to meet Paul and enter the city with him

I like what we do in this area here at SMC. Our supper clubs give time to get to know each other outside of the worship service. Care groups have given many of us a safe place to share our lives with each other. Our summer potlucks provide another place where we meet face-to-face outside of the worship service. We have many people here this morning who can testify to the care that others in the church have given them. I think that Paul—and Luke—would compliment us, and that he would tell us to care for each other even more! We can keep on developing ways to know each other and support each other face-to-face.

2. The first church cared for each other in practical ways (not just saying “I love you man!”). Remember that Paul went to Jerusalem twice to take a gift to help them in a time of economic hardship and famine. In Acts 11 Barnabas and Paul took them support during a famine, and in Acts 21, Paul and Silas did the same. In Acts 2 they shared all that they had. In the passage we read, someone provided a house for Paul to stay in. I’m reading a history of the early church by F.F. Bruce, titled The Spreading Flame. He observes:
The organization of charity … was a major activity within the individual churches themselves from the start …. The first institution of officers in the Jerusalem church, in addition to the apostles who were the natural leaders from the outset, was the appointment of seven almoners to take charge of this distribution. (Bruce, 189)

He adds this statement about physical needs:
The Christian tradition of caring for the sick also goes back to primitive times. When Alexandria was devastated by an outbreak of plague in the middle of the third century, Dionysius, bishop of the church in that city, describes the devotion with which Christians tended the sick, often catching the plague and dying of it themselves in consequence, whereas their pagan neighbours “thrust from them those who showed the symptoms of plague and fled from their nearest and dearest.” (Bruce, 191)

Here is a contemporary example of the way that church community speaks to the world around us, found in a prayer letter from my wife’s niece. The report describes the experience of a Christian in their local community in Mexico:
About one month ago a boy from our church died in an accident and the reaction of the people who know God’s Word was different [than others’ reaction]; the believers of the church walked alongside the parents of the boy in this difficult situation that they were going through, and many people of the community went to visit the boy’s family and were able to hear the Word of God.  Also, when a service was given at church many people from the community that don’t know God’s Word went, and that day we preached God's Word and many could understand God’s Word since I preached in our language and I could tell that many people liked hearing God's Word.

One lady who recently began to congregate with us told us that her husband hadn’t given her or her children the freedom to go to church in the past, but that the day of the burial her husband had heard God's Word and when they got back home he told his wife that she and their children were free to go to the church.

I like what our church community does in this area as well. We have a history of supporting each other and of reaching out into our community with God’s love. For example, the continued growth of what we call “Steinbach Community Outreach” is an example of such community. Community and reconciliation go together, expressing God’s love to each other and expressing God’s love to the world around us.

3. Life in community creates a counter-culture, which stands against the larger society. The way that Paul proclaimed the gospel reminds us of God’s Reign. Do you ever wonder how the church is related to God’s Reign? Here is how I describe it.
·        The church is not God’s Reign. God’s Reign is bigger than the church. God’s reign is eternal, perfect beyond the bounds of this world, and the church is flawed and imperfect.
·        At the same time, within this world, the God’s reign is made visible in the church.
To put it another way, Canada as a whole lives by one set of values. But God’s Reign is seen in the values that we hold in the community of faith.

We confess that we fail many times to live according to the values of God’s Reign. We fail to love when we intend to love. We fail to forgive and reconcile when we know that God wants us to do so. Such failures hurt. I had a colleague once who felt that I betrayed him. He ended our relationship and refused any approach in which I could examine myself and apologize.

But you see, the fact that we feel the hurt of these failures reminds us of what God wants us to be and to do. People around us in the larger society do the same things and call them “self-care”, or “taking care of myself.” We seek to become like Christ. We are the community of Christ-followers who imitate Christ. As Paul says in Philippians 2, we consider each other’s needs as more important than our own. When we fail, we remember Peter’s words from the Jerusalem Council: “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” We confess our failures, and God restores us so that we can walk again in Christ’s way.

There is much more that we could examine, but this is a start. We are a people who live with Jesus as the centre of our faith, community as the centre of our lives, and reconciliation as the centre of our work.

A final word about community: When we live together and love each other, we help each other to become better and stronger than any of us can be alone. There’s a reason that Weight Watchers encourage each other to lose weight in community with others. There’s a reason that Twelve-Step support systems work so well.

I haven’t defined “community” as we talk about it. Defining “faith” and “community” and “reconciliation” and so on would take another series. But for this morning here is my shorthand summary as a way to think about it:
Jesus is the centre of our faith—Love God.
Community is the centre of our life—Love God’s People.
Reconciliation is the centre of our work—Love—God’s World.

Love God. Love God’s People. Love God’s World.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
28 May 2017
Text, Acts 28: 11-31

Paul’s Arrival at Rome

11 After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island—it was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. 12 We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days.13 From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli. 14 There we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome. 15 The brothers and sisters there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these people Paul thanked God and was encouraged. 16 When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him.

30 For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. 31 He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The First Church of Antioch/Jerusalem (Almost) Blows Up

I am continuing the comparison of Palmer Becker’s summary of an Anabaptist identity with the first church in the book of Acts. Last Sunday we noted the connection of “Jesus is the centre of our faith” with the summary of the church begun at Pentecost (Acts 2). Today we examine a controversy that threatened to blow up the First Church of Jerusalem, and which decisively changed the shape of that church—the Council of Jerusalem, called to consider the question: Must Gentile believers in Jesus the Messiah be circumcised and keep the whole Law of Moses? They decided No! We take their decision for granted, given that we are part of the Gentile Church coming from that decision; but it was not nearly so straightforward and clear at the time.

Acts 15 illustrates the second and third of Becker’s summary statements: “Community is the centre of our life, and reconciliation is the centre of our work.” Given that Acts 15 has to do with who is in the church, we can see how it deals with Becker’s comment on community, but we will actually examine reconciliation more deeply. We begin with the background to this passage, and then examine the decision more closely.

The Issue of Circumcision
The first church in Acts 2 was a Jewish church. Although it was highly multicultural, it consisted of “Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2: 5). It remained a Jewish church throughout the first eight chapters of Acts, with a minor movement to Samaria. We can see from Acts 11: 19-21 both how thoroughly Jewish the church was and how it broke out of those confining walls:
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

As long as the church was Jewish, all followers of Jesus continued to observe the Jewish Law. Jesus himself had said that he came to fulfill the law, not to get rid of it. But when Gentiles started joining the fellowship, they had a problem.

The first major movement of Gentiles came in chapter 10, when Peter went to the house of Cornelius, sent by the Holy Spirit, and baptized a houseful of new Gentile believers, who had received the same gift of the Holy Spirit that fell on the first disciples at Pentecost. The evangelizing of Acts 11 added to this beginning, and soon there were many Gentile believers, especially in Antioch, about 300 miles in straight flight north of Jerusalem. (F.F. Bruce suggests that Antioch was the home of Luke, the author of Luke-Acts.)

When the Gentile church began in Antioch, the Jerusalem Church sent Barnabas to instruct them (Acts 11: 22). Barnabas enlisted Saul, and they discipled these new believers. One immediate result was that the Antioch Church helped the Jerusalem Church to survive a bad famine (Acts 11: 27-30). Barnabas and Saul took the gift to Jerusalem, and returned to Antioch at the end of chapter 12, taking with them Barnabas’ cousin, John Mark. (The rest of Chapter 12 tells about Peter’s imprisonment and about the death of James, the son of Zebedee.)

In chapter 13 one can sense trouble brewing. The Antioch Church was a Gentile church, and they sent Barnabas and Saul on a missionary journey to modern Turkey. They went first to Cyprus (which was Barnabas’ home), then to a number of cities in Turkey (closer to Paul’s home in Tarsus). They started by preaching in the synagogue, with good responses from the community, but the Jewish leaders opposed them and began to “heap abuse” on them. In 13: 46f Paul and Barnabas responded that they would now turn to the Gentiles, which marks the beginning of Paul’s Gentile ministry. (Note the significant shift in naming; until chapter 13 Acts refers to Barnabas and Saul; from this chapter on Acts refers to Paul and Barnabas, suggesting that Paul takes the lead, using his Roman—and therefore Gentile—name.) Chapter 14 continues their ministry in Turkey, leading to more conversions and the growth of the Gentile Church. So the stage is set for Acts 15.

The Text
Verses 1-4: If the Jewish church had so far not insisted on circumcision, that now changed. Some Pharisees from the Jerusalem Church insisted that the new Gentile believers should be circumcised; Paul and Barnabas stood against them. The Antioch Church gathered together and decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to work out a solution with the elders of the church there. This does not mean that the Jerusalem Church had authority over the Antioch Church, but indicates that the two groups in the church (Jewish-background believers and Gentile-background believers) recognized that this issue was central to the shape of the gospel, and therefore to the shape of the new church. You notice that they were welcomed in Jerusalem. The two groups began their conversation hoping to find a resolution, not expecting to disagree.

Verses 5-11: These verses present the basic debate.
1. The circumcisers made their case: Everyone who follows Jesus must also keep the whole Law of Moses, including circumcision. Clearly this position means that new Gentile believers have a lot more to do than just follow Jesus. From verse 5 we can see that the ones most likely to insist on keeping the whole law—including circumcision—were Pharisees who had accepted the gospel. They might have expected Paul the Pharisee to agree with them, but he did not.
2. The apostles and elders debated their case. We sometimes call this “the Jerusalem Council”, but this was a smaller leadership group who spoke for the whole church. (This fact does not mean that an elder-led church is biblical and other forms or not; this form reflected Jewish culture, drawn directly from the synagogue.)
3. There was a long conversation, in which we can assume that most people had a chance to speak.
4. Peter then makes his case against circumcision for Gentiles. The circumcisers may have thought that Peter would be on their side, after all, as Paul tells in Galatians (2: 11ff), when the circumcisers first came to Antioch, Peter listened to them and stopped eating with Gentiles until they would be circumcised. But Paul rebuked Peter at that time, and Peter appears to have been convinced. He says two things:
1) God showed me in the house of Cornelius that God loves all people; God does not play favourites between Jews and Gentiles.
2) The law is actually a yoke (a burden of discipline) that neither Gentiles nor Jews can bear. Rather, it is God’s grace given in Jesus that saves us, just as God saves Gentiles.

Verses 12-21: Peter’s words shifted the mood of the meeting. Now Paul and Barnabas started telling what happened in their recent trip through Asia Minor (Turkey), in which God’s Spirit was as evident has the Spirit had been at Pentecost. When they were done, James, who appears to take the leadership in the Jerusalem Church, gives the verdict. This James was the brother of Jesus, and probably the author of the book of James in the NT.

He said:
1) God spoke through Simon (Peter) to call Cornelius.
2) The prophets had said this would happen (quoting from Amos 9: 11-12). 3)
3) We must listen to what God is doing today: Gentiles do not need to keep the Law (so they do not need to be circumcised), but we do ask them to honour Jewish food laws to make the transition easier for Jewish-background believers. (Compare Paul in Romans 14 and 15 on food offered to idols.)

So the resolution to the issue was to focus on their common centre: “We are saved the same way that they are—through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The resolution included advice not to take advantage of the decision to put the losing side on the defensive. Circumcision was a once-a-lifetime ritual, but food laws were lived with every day. Rather than making the Jewish-background believers uncomfortable on a daily basis, every time they saw Gentile-background believers eating food, they looked for common ground to help people live together.

More About The Issue
It is hard for us from this distance in time to see how contentious an issue this matter of circumcision was. Listen to the way Paul talks about the issue in Galatians, which was written just before the council met in Jerusalem and dealt with these issues from Paul’s perspective. (If you want to know what Paul said in the Antioch and Jerusalem meetings, Galatians gives a pretty good idea!)

Galatians 3: 1-3,
“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?

Again, Galatians 5: 2-6,
Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

And finally, Galatians 5: 11-12,
Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

Clearly Paul saw the centre of the gospel, faith in Jesus Christ, as at stake in the debate.

Meanwhile the circumcisers were themselves making a strong case that any Gentile men who were not circumcised were betraying the Law of Moses and betraying Jesus at the same time. The issue was one that had the potential to destroy the first church, both the First Church of Jerusalem and the First Church of Antioch.

In this incendiary situation, the apostles and elders found a way forward by reconciling the two groups together into one body. This reconciliation was revolutionary, and serves as an example for us to follow in our lives today. If Paul argues eloquently against circumcision in the book of Galatians, he speaks with even greater passion of the great work of reconciliation that the church actually embraced. Hear his description of this reconciliation in Ephesians 2: 11-22,
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Wow! This is the heart of who we are. “Reconciliation is the centre of our work.

For Us Today
I wonder what example to choose to illustrate such reconciliation at work today. Often our conflicts are over criminal actions, so we observe the way that the Amish forgave the killer in the Nickel Mines shooting. One can find stories in the news of individual acts of forgiving acts as terrible as a murder. Perhaps the most moving for me have been reports in the NY Times from April 6, 2014, about survivors of the Genocide in Rwanda. The article tells stories from the work of the NGOs seeking to bring perpetrators and victims together for confession and reconciliation.

Here is one such brief story:
NDAHIMANA: “The day I thought of asking pardon, I felt unburdened and relieved. I had lost my humanity because of the crime I committed, but now I am like any human being.”
MUNGANYINKA: “After I was chased from my village and Dominique and others looted it, I became homeless and insane. Later, when he asked my pardon, I said: ‘I have nothing to feed my children. Are you going to help raise my children? Are you going to build a house for them?’ The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than 50 of them, and they built my family a house. Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.”

None of their stories suggest that reconciliation is easy. It must be worked at one step at a time. In the early church the conflict did not end with the Jerusalem Council; it had to be worked at one step at a time for many years.

Our conflicts are not nearly as serious as the criminal acts I have mentioned, but the scars they leave are deep, separating people from each other. The first church came close to a full-scale explosion, and avoided it by drawing on their deeper common centre, their life in Christ.

They made peace by laying their differences out on the table, and then re-centring on Christ. That work of re-centring became the work of reconciliation. We do the same today—from seeking peace with God to seeking peace between the nations of the world. Reconciliation is our work. Reconciliation is our ministry and our message, given to us by God, in a world on the verge of exploding. To be fully Anabaptist is to embrace this work of reconciliation in every area of our lives in every way possible with everyone around us.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
21 May 2017 
Text, Acts 15: 1-21

The Council at Jerusalem

15 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles.15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: 16 “‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it,  that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’—18 things known from long ago.

19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The First Church of Jerusalem

Last Sunday Victor reminded us of Palmer Becker’s summary of an Anabaptist identity: “Jesus is the center of our faith. Community is the center of our lives. Reconciliation is the center of our work.” This summary helps give clarity to what we mean when we say we want to be an Anabaptist church.

Over the next three Sundays I want to ask a related question: What shape did the first church take? A particular concern of the first Anabaptists was what we sometimes call “primitivism”, when “primitive” means “original”—that is, what the first church in Acts looked like. Their concern was to try and restore the church to the kind of fellowship found in the book of Acts. We see a similar movement in the Wesleyan Church, which was formed by a merger of the Wesleyans with the Primitive Methodist Church.

Today I want to look at that first church, using the summary statement in Acts 2, following the formation of the disciples into a growing group at Pentecost. What we see this morning reflects the first two of Palmer Becker’s three summaries: Jesus is the centre of our faith and community is the centre of our lives. I will focus especially on the first one.

Next Sunday I will look at Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council, which gives us insight into the third of Becker’s statement: Reconciliation is the centre of our work. On May 28 I plan to examine Paul’s experience of an enforced house fellowship in Acts 28, which picks up the second summary idea: Community is the centre of our lives. Acts 2 occurs within the first two months of Christ’s death and resurrection. The Jerusalem Council took place about 20 years later. Finally, Paul’s imprisonment in Rome was about 30 years after Christ’s death and resurrection. So we are looking at the first church over the first 30 years of its life.

The Text
Look with me at Acts 2: 42-47.
Chapter 2 describes the events of Pentecost—the way that the disciples were waiting for God’s Spirit; the way that God’s Spirit fell on them, leading to speaking in the languages of all the Jews gathered at Pentecost; the response of the people to this outburst; Peter’s sermon to the people, leading many to repent [of killing the Messiah] and joining themselves to the group of those who follow Jesus as God’s Messiah. Verses 42 to 47 then describe the way that this first group of disciples lived and worshipped. Each of the segments of Acts 2 deserves its own full treatment, but we look this morning just at verses 42-47.

Verse 42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
The text is clear. They took four basic steps [that is, “they devoted themselves to”]:
1. They listened to and followed the apostles’ teaching. (”Jesus is the centre of our faith.”)
2. They practiced “fellowship”. (“Community is the centre of our lives.”)
3. They broke bread regularly—probably on a daily basis. (“Jesus is the centre of our faith.”
4. They spent a lot of time in prayer. (Ditto!)
We will discuss these four more fully below.

Verse 43: “Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.”
This statement makes it clear that their lives continued the life of Jesus himself. Just as his ministry was characterized by signs and wonders, so also were their lives. The point of these “signs”—miracles of healing and casting out evil spirits—was always to bring people to faith in Jesus. They healed and delivered people, as the record in Acts shows, not so much because they were trying to replace hospitals, as because these actions were a sign of God’s presence, helping people to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.

Verses 44-45: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”
This part of the summary expands on the fellowship that they practiced (verse 42). Both of these two qualities—the use of signs and wonders, and the practice of radical koinonia—are developed more fully in the next summary statement Luke provides in Acts 4.

Verses 46-47: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Luke closes the summary with this note—that they continued to worship in the temple (which would have included making the sacrifices found in the Judaism of that time), but went deeper into their faith in home fellowships, where they ate together and broke bread. One result of their radical and open discipleship was that new believers kept joining them on a daily basis.

Now I want to look more deeply at the four “devotions” of verse 42.

Devoted To
1. They listened to and followed the apostles’ teaching.
What was the apostles’ teaching? Remember that this summary comes about two months after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The apostles, then, would be the 12 named in Acts 1—the original 11 plus Matthias. They were chosen specifically because they were witnesses to the whole of Jesus’ ministry (Acts 1: 21f). So “the apostles’ teaching” would be their memories of all that Jesus said and did. This teaching probably formed the core of what have become our four gospels. The rest of the NT (Acts to Revelation) grew out of reflection on this original teaching. So we do the same today by devoting ourselves also to the Scriptures, which bring us to Jesus.

Reviewing the way that the NT grew out of the apostles’ teaching reminds us of the basic way that we read Scripture. In Luke 24 Jesus opened the Scriptures to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, showing them from the Scriptures that the Messiah had to “suffer these things” [the crucifixion] before he entered into his glory. That conversation led to an extensive re-interpretation of their Scriptures (our Old Testament), read through the person of Jesus. The NT grew out of these conversations, which included this summary in Acts 2.

We have said a number of times that we read the Old Testament through the New Testament, and that we interpret both through the person of Jesus Christ. You see that basic pattern established here already in Luke 24 and Acts 2.

I like the way that some liturgical churches use the lectionary. They read three Scriptures each Sunday. First there is the OT, with the reader stating “The Word of the Lord” at the close of the reading, and the congregation responding, “Thanks be to God.” Later in the service, there is the NT reading, with the same formula. Then, just before the sermon, the reader calls on the congregation to stand for the gospel reading, holding the Bible aloft to exalt the gospel just before reading it. The whole process reminds us of how we read the Bible. Even if we don’t follow that style of lectionary readings, we do use the principles behind it.
A brief excursus: This example from liturgical traditions serves as a reminder that the principles that we think of as uniquely Anabaptist belong in fact to the church as a whole. John Wesley, for example, was clear that we read the Old through the New, and the whole through the life and ministry of Jesus. This is indeed an Anabaptist distinctive, but not uniquely ours.

2. They practiced “fellowship”.
We will spend more time on this point in a couple of weeks. For today it is enough to observe that the first church was radically oriented to Jesus, and thus also to each other. They took Jesus’ words seriously—that we love God and we love each other equally. As John puts it in his letters, our love for God is expressed in our love for each other. Among the many commands we find in the letters of the NT, the command to love each other (stated in one way or another) is the most common by far.

Francis Schaeffer has a little booklet titled The Mark of the Christian, in which he argues two things: 1) Based on John 13: 34-35 (I give you a new command—to love each other), Schaeffer states that failure to love each other denies our identity as Christians. We say to the world, “We are not followers of Jesus.” 2) Based on John 17: 20-26 (Jesus’ prayer for those who will believe through his disciples, that they may be one as Jesus is one with the Father), he adds that failure to love each other testifies to the world that God does not exist and that the Father did not send the Son into the world. “Community is the centre of our lives,” says Becker. Indeed!

3. They broke bread regularly.
This is a practice that we have lost in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. I am not sure just why, but possibly because we saw the extent to which the church had become corrupt. The Church that the first Anabaptists knew had made the Mass the centre of daily worship services, and they rejected all that the established church stood for. So we have come to celebrate communion [the breaking of bread] two to four times a year.
Excursus: Some argue that the breaking of bread refers to a common meal rather than to communion. That is, I believe, correct; but it closed with communion, patterned after the Last Supper. This chapter comes only two chapters after Luke 24, in Luke’s two-volume work. It describes the pattern that was established in the first year of the new church’s life. I can’t imagine that they did not intentionally model their meetings on their memory of the last meal they had with Jesus.

I don’t think that this passage calls us back to daily celebration of the Lord’s Table, but it does call us back to remembering and living Christ’s death and resurrection regularly. A basic point of “breaking bread” is to know Christ. As Luke says of the two disciples in Luke 24, they recognized Jesus when he blessed the bread and broke it. We know Jesus in blessing the bread and the cup and taking communion.

This point reminds us that our Anabaptist commitment to activism—to an active discipleship—must be grounded in daily communion with God. We walk with Jesus (discipleship) because we are in close relationship with God. The fourth point reinforces this emphasis on knowing God.

4. They spent a lot of time in prayer.
Someone has said that nothing important happens in the book of Acts (and in Luke’s gospel) without the Holy Spirit and prayer. At the beginning of this chapter the Holy Spirit falls on the gathered disciples as they are praying. Repeatedly throughout the book they gather to pray, and God acts as they pray. This truth is bound together with the emphasis above on regular communion. Here we find the source of our desire and ability to walk faithfully as disciples of Jesus.

What Does This Look Like Today?
I am not certain what this kind of church would look like today. I suspect that almost any church around us could look like this. These four points are not so much a blueprint as they are a set of principles that should be found in our church life, whatever our precise structures. We are people who study Scripture deeply. We are people who live out what we find as we study Scripture. We are people who pray together as we study and as we live our lives. We are people who are grounded in God’s love and show that love to everyone around us. We are people who make God’s reign visible in our lives, so that we live against the grain of our society.

To put it another way, we are called to be an Acts 2 church. An Anglican church, with its Bishop-led and diocesan structure, can be an Acts 2 church. A Pentecostal church, with its emphasis on speaking in tongues, can be an Acts 2 church. A Russian orthodox church, with no pews so that no one sits down in God’s presence, can be an Acts 2 church. That is what God wants us also to be.

We are part of the Mennonite family, with our own history and our own patterns and structures. These are important, and we do not set them aside lightly. We embrace our church history and traditions as we go into the future. But within the way we do things, we remain a people centred on the life and ministry of Jesus. That is how we become like the first church of Jerusalem. That is what God calls us to do as God’s people today.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
14 May 2017
Text, Acts 2: 42-47
The Fellowship of the Believers
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.