Acts and What the Church Looks Like

What should a church look like? What should the Church look like? There are no shortage of answers. Some might appeal to tradition, to the tradition of our particular church over the past 130 years, or the traditions of Baptists over the past 400 or so years, or of Protestants or beyond. Some might appeal to the experts, whether lecturers, leaders, or writers. Some might appeal to documents, such as the church constitution. While each of the above can be of benefit, there is one book we we really ought to have front and centre. Yes, the Bible. And of all the books that make up the Bible there is one that jumps to the front and centre in giving a description of what the Church looks like: Acts.

The book of Acts chronicles the highlights of Christianity up until the apostle Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. There is no good reason to not trust the earliest records which tell us that Acts was written by Luke, the same author of the Gospel of Luke. Indeed the two books belong together as a two volume work. This means Acts was written by someone who was around during those days and who was a companion to the apostle Paul. Luke was also an eyewitness himself to some of the events he narrates as we see implied in the use of “we” instead of “they” in some places. We who are Christians will appeal to the inspiration of the Scriptures, but even the non-believer should take a moment to consider that Luke is a reliable historian.

So what does the Church look like in Acts? With all that was going on what does Luke consider important enough to record for us to see? Even more importantly, reminding ourselves of the inspiration of scripture, what does God want us to see?

First let us begin with what we do not see. We do not see any mention of church constitutions, policy manuals, or even mission and vision statements. We do not see a focus on programs and programming whether for men, women, seniors, or children, or any other people group. We do not see a dress code. We do not see building programs. While we do see some mention of leaders and leadership roles, there is neither a well spelled out hierarchy nor as complete a listing of job descriptions as we might like.

So what do we see?

We see a church on fire. And by the reference to fire, I mean we see a people connected and filled with the Holy Spirit:

1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1-4)

We often think of the full title of Acts as being “The Acts of the Apostles.” It would seem that in the earliest of days Luke’s book was simply known as “Acts.” It has often been said that it ought to be known as “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” for when you read through you are constantly hearing about God’s Holy Spirit involved in everything that is going on. We see the Holy Spirit guiding individuals, we see the Holy Spirit guiding the leaders collectively in church meetings: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” (Acts 15:28) We see the Holy Spirit guiding the theology, direction and future of the Christian movement: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) The Church in the earliest days was a people on fire with the Holy Spirit’s presence, leadership, and activity.

After visiting our home one day my Mum and Dad drove down the hill on which we live. On stopping at the Stop sign at the bottom my Dad hit the gas pedal to get going again. The engine revved up but the car refused to move. My Dad hit the gas harder, the engine revved higher, but the car still sat motionless. After some time of revving up my Dad finally figured out the problem. The car was in neutral the whole time and Mum and Dad had simply rolled down the hill to the Stop sign thanks to gravity. This reminds me of an illustration I once heard, I forget from whom, of a church being like a car and the Holy Spirit being like the fuel or even the engine. Back in the 1950s when church and churchgoing was such a big part of the culture of Canada, you could build a “successful” church as long as you had a half decent public speaker along with half decent music. You didn’t need the Holy Spirit to operate like a church. I heard this metaphor in the 1990s when better preaching and better music could still be a big draw (especially drawing people from other churches!). But now it is 2016 and we are at a Stop sign. We are not getting anywhere without God’s Holy Spirit.

There is much more for us to notice about the Church in Acts. We see a church soaking wet. And by soaking wet, I mean we see people responding to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and professing their faith through baptism. It was not a social or service club, but a transformed people. We see a church under pressure. Though Luke tell us about many successes, it was not always smooth sailing and persecution was almost normal. We see a church that looks like the kind of crowd Jesus would welcome. The history of the church is the history of sinners and sceptics becoming saints. We see a church that looks like Jesus. To drive that point home the last words of the first martyr will sound familiar:

59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.. (Acts 7:59-60)

We see the earliest of Christians modeling their lives, not on religious duties or traditions, but on Jesus Christ.

So what should a church look like today? As the history of the Church unfolds in the Book of Acts, the focus is never on the organizations, the systems, the buildings, the hierarchies, or the programs. Instead the focus is on a God-filled people.

We can tend to hold as our primary focus things that I don’t think God is very passionate about. The church looks like a people passionate about what God is passionate about. So what is God passionate about? According to Acts: People. God is passionate about inviting people into His kingdom. God is passionate about bringing about that day spoken of in Revelation 21:3 which does not say

See, the church with the biggest steeple, the largest attendance, the most efficient budget, the most money raised, the sweetest sounding choir, the best dressed pastor, the least preachy preacher or the most preachy preacher depending on your preference, the most comprehensive constitution, or the most succinct mission statement.

Rather it says:

See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
(Revelation 21:3)

God is passionate about bringing about that day. As His Church does that passion drive everything we do? Or, on the other hand, is that passion supplanted by everything else we do?

(All scripture references are from the NRSV)

An Outcast Seeks God

16343726933_0c52484539_nHow would you feel if you made a very long journey to see the natural beauty of Niagara Falls, but when you arrived you were told “you must keep your distance.” There you are, close enough to see the mist rising from the falls, but instead of enjoying that wonderful natural beauty you are kept in the highly commercialized part of town. There is something similar happening to an Ethiopian eunuch we meet in Acts 8. He has a desire to worship the God of Israel, and takes a long trek to seek God’s presence at the temple in Jerusalem. But he can only get so close before he is barred from going further. He is a foreigner and a eunuch, a guarantee of always being considered as too unclean to enter the temple. And so he can only go as far as the busy and noisy outer courts of the temple, where people are buying and selling for the sacrifices. Perhaps you feel you have a similar problem, wanting to draw close to God, but not feeling good enough to do so?

When we meet the eunuch, he is already on his way home. He has gone as far as he was allowed to go in his pursuit of God’s presence. Now, on his way home, we find something remarkable. God is pursuing him.

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” Acts 8:26-29 NRSV

Sometimes we fail to see God in the details. We might be ready to affirm that God desires to bring salvation to sinners, but we might fail to appreciate that God desires to work in the life of this or that particular sinner. We might even be that particular person we doubt God could be interested in. Yet God’s work in the life of one individual could not be clearer than we find in His pursuit of the Ethiopian eunuch. Let’s see what happens next:

30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. Acts 8:30-35 NRSV

The good news Phillip has for the eunuch is that Jesus is the one described in that prophecy of Isaiah 53:7,8 and he is now risen from the dead. Jesus is the suffering servant. And you can imagine Phillip pointing out the surrounding verses in that same prophecy of Isaiah to tell why he suffered:

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:4-6 NRSV

 

They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the LORD shall prosper. 11 Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. Isaiah 53:9-12 NRSV

Jesus suffered to bring salvation to the sinner. But did he suffer for an outcast like the Ethiopian eunuch? “Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.” I wonder if Phillip went on to the prophecy of Isaiah chapter 56:

3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
8 Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.
Isaiah 56:3-8 NRSV

I wonder if Phillip told the eunuch about Jesus quoting from this passage in the outer courtyards of the temple as he rebuked those making profits there. This was to be a house of prayer for all nations, but how could the nations worship among all the buzz of commerce? Did the eunuch’s heart warm as he heard about Jesus’ concern for the outcast, for the foreigner and the eunuch who came to the temple to worship? Did it burn as he heard that Jesus was the servant who suffered even for an outcast like him? Did it rejoice to know that this Jesus was risen from the dead and that God was pursuing him, specifically sending Phillip to tell him the good news? Something did indeed happen in the eunuch’s heart:

36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. Acts 8:36-38 NRSV

As an Ethiopian and a eunuch, there was only so far this man could go in becoming a Jewish convert with full privileges. And yet here he was baptized, symbolizing his complete inclusion into the body of Christ. As an Ethiopian and a eunuch, there was only so far he could go in pursuing the presence of God at the temple before he would be stopped by the religious authorities. But here God pursued him. Now through the Holy Spirit he had become the place of God’s presence. The good news for the Ethiopian eunuch is good news for us. God loves and pursues the outcast. Are you pursuing Him?

photo credit: No Entry via photopin (license)