Evangelism, Typewriter Sales, & Ezekiel.

As Christians we have an amazing message to share with the world. God is love and desires to be reconciled to each and every person no matter where they came from or what they have been like. He has done the heavy lifting necessary for reconciliation through Jesus and offers His Spirit. We share in God’s amazing ministry of reconciliation. Yet it often feels like this amazing message falls on deaf ears. Churches have tried a great many things in order to get the message out, including revamping the experience of church in an effort to get people in. However, many have felt the frustration of trying change after change, and program after program, with limited results. The message seems stuck within our walls, and even when it gets out, it feels like no one is listening. It feels like we are selling typewriters.

Ezekiel had a similar experience of not being heard. For seven years he faithfully spoke messages from the Lord to God’s people in exile. These were, more often than not, messages of judgement, or stated more precisely, messages of opportunity. In Ezekiel 33 we get a glimpse of how successful he was:

As for you, mortal, your people who talk together about you by the walls, and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to a neighbor, “Come and hear what the word is that comes from the Lord.” 31 They come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear your words, . . .

So far so good!

. . . but they will not obey them. For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain. 32 To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it. Ezekiel 33:30-32 (NRSV)

In other words, Ezekiel was not very successful at all! No one was really “getting” the message. Ezekiel may have had more success selling them Latin-script typewriters.

So is there any encouragement for us from Ezekiel’s experience? Yes, there are four points of encouragement:

First, look to the future.

Having been told that his efforts have failed, Ezekiel is pointed to the future:

When the thing takes place — and it is beginning now — they will know that there has been a prophet among them.’ (Ezek. 33:33 NJB)

In this chapter word arrives that Jerusalem and the temple have been destroyed. Now that judgement has come, the truth about Ezekiel is made plain. He is not just a “singer of love songs,” he is a prophet of God, and has been speaking true and truly significant things.

The Church might be thought of as many things to many different people; a curiosity, a museum, a historical footnote, a crutch for the weak, a drug for the masses, a danger to society, a false religion, a source of entertainment, a social opportunity, a collection of nice, but not very bright people, and of course, a bunch of hypocrites. But, when Jesus returns, the truth will come out as to what the Church really is. We are not typewriter salespeople. We have a prophetic role, we speak a message on God’s behalf to the world:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 (NRSV emphasis mine)

We are ambassadors for Christ, we we fulfil a prophetic role by speaking a message on behalf of God; be reconciled to God. That may seem like hogwash to many today, but the day will come when “they will know that there has been a prophet among them.”

Second, Ezekiel had confidence in his calling. He knew he was a prophet.

When this comes—and come it will!—then they shall know that a prophet has been among them. Ezekiel 33:33 (NRSV)

Before the people knew a prophet was among them, Ezekiel had to know it first! Do we as God’s people today have confidence in God’s call upon us? Many things have been tried, and will be tried in efforts to attract people to the Church and Jesus. However, sometimes we confuse our methods with our calling. Our calling is not to attract people, but to call people to reconciliation with God. We will know we have been faithful in our calling if it said of us “the Church has been a prophet among us, those people have been speaking a message of reconciliation on behalf of God.”

Third, Ezekiel had confidence in his message. He knew his message was the correct one.

Just as the message of Ezekiel was not popular, and certainly not as popular as the “happier” messages from the false prophets, so the Christian message is not popular. I am reminder of the hymn lyric “Oh the old rugged cross, so despised by the world, has a wondrous attraction for me.” Despite the unpopularity of the message, we can have confidence that it is the correct message, and the most important message in the world.

In luring John Scully away from Pepsi to work at Apple, Steve Jobs famously asked “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” There is no doubt that Apple products like the iPod and iPhone have been transformative. But if Steve Jobs were still alive we could ask him if he wanted to sell circuit boards the rest of his life, or if he wanted to join Jesus and change the world. Even the smallest, most stuck in the mud church, with the most boring preacher ever heard, has a greater and more significant calling than the extraordinary Apple company. The message we have been entrusted with is the most important message in the world. We do know that, right?

Fourth, Ezekiel was faithful despite being ignored for 7 years. 

We need to be faithful for as many years as it takes. When the world does not listen to God’s message, let us remain faithful as God’s messengers.

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)

Generosity and the Acts 2 Church

small_3129428399

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47 NRSV emphasis mine)

If you did not know that the above quotation was from the Bible, would you have assumed instead that it is a description of the typical church in Canada? I am guessing not. It is a picture of incredible devotion, togetherness, and generosity which we might lament we do not live up to. On the other hand we might be glad that this does not describe Christian churches in Canada; do we really want such crazy giving away of our stuff? We might be concerned that this passage is setting up an ideal for the Christian community that we neither want nor think we can attain. Is it, and are we falling short?

Whether the passage is reflecting an ideal or not, it is describing what was real. This is how the first Christians acted immediately following the calling and establishment of the Church at Pentecost. Let us note three things.

  1. There is great giving. The first Christians are enthusiastic enough to sacrifice their stuff for those in need.
  2. There is ongoing giving. The tense of the verb describing the selling of stuff indicates ongoing activity rather than a one-time thing.
  3. There is spontaneous giving. This is not a response to imposed law. While the Old Testament law makes provisions for the poor we do not get the picture here of the apostles imposing such and making demands on the people. They don’t need to, the generosity is spontaneous.

Why is there such great, ongoing, and spontaneous generous activity? There are a lot of verbs in this passage as there is a lot going on, but tucked in there also is a description of the hearts of the people: They have “glad and generous hearts” (v.46 NRSV). There is spontaneous generous activity because hearts are being changed. It is a heart thing!

Some of you may think of a different translation of that phrase “glad and generous” for the word generous in verse 46 can also be translated as singleness or simplicity of heart. We might want to ponder the fact that simplicity and generosity go together. When we are not feeling particularly generous toward someone we have a tendency of cluttering up our thoughts with rather complex rationalizations. For example, “you have need, I have plenty, but I cannot help you because . . . [enter rationalization here].” Or, “you need my forgiveness, I have the potential for being generous with grace, but I cannot forgive you because . . . [enter rationalization here].” Sometimes generosity is the simplest way forward. And it was the way forward for these first converts to Christianity.

So how did the first Christians come to have such glad and generous hearts? It is Pentecost and the Holy Spirit is changing hearts! As one Bible commentator notes, people are “fundamentally selfish,” but on the Day of Pentecost, with the outpouring and indwelling of the Holy Spirit, hearts are being changed.

The language people often use of people “getting religion” just does not work when people genuinely come to faith in Christ. You will sometimes hear it said that so-and-so “got religion.” The three thousand who came to faith in Jesus that day did not get religion, they already had religion, being Jews devout enough to be in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. What they “got” was Jesus, recognizing Him as Lord and Messiah. And with “getting Jesus” they also “got” the Holy Spirit. Indeed the New Atheists are onto something when they say that religion can be bad for you and for society. Religion will destroy you, the Holy Spirit will restore you. The three thousand on Pentecost got Jesus, they got the Holy Spirit, and their hearts were changed for the better.

So how do we develop glad and generous hearts today? While we do not want to take the application of this passage in a wrong direction and push for a commune-style of Church, we do want to long for our church today to be a people marked by glad and generous hearts. If we find we are falling short on this how do we proceed? Should we  institute a plan to become an Acts 2 kind of church, getting the leadership together with a vision and umpteen step plan of how we will get there? Or do we legislate it, writing into our constitutions that if you want to keep your membership you had better have a glad and generous heart? It seems to me that our typical churches do a lot of those kinds of things. Or is the solution much simpler: we long for it, we ask for it, we pray for it – “Lord, with you Holy Spirit in us, fill, refresh, convict, overwhelm, and remake us: give us glad and generous hearts!”

photo credit: Monica’s Dad via photopin cc