Tag Archives: Church

Resurrection of the Organism

[Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard [Apollos], they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.

When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him.
Acts 18:26-27 (NIV)

My local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been studying the book of Acts. It’s one of the reasons I’m journeying through it again here on my blog. Like all institutional organizations, my local gathering of believers has a traditional hierarchy and well-maintained organization. We even have an official prayer ministry and volunteers who have been trained up and will pray for those who ask for it or need it. That is an absolutely awesome thing for which I’m thankful.

In the past couple of weeks, however, something very interesting has been happening. A few weeks ago the teacher of the morning asked anyone who wanted prayer, for whatever reason, to simply stand where they were during our worship song. Those seated around anyone standing were then encouraged to stand, reach out, place a hand on that person and pray for them. Many stood and many prayed. It was beautiful.

Over the coming weeks one could see that after the morning worship there were several small pockets of believers praying over and for one another. This wasn’t some official part of the service. These weren’t official prayer ministers from the prayer ministry doing what they were trained to do by the organization. These prayers for and over one another were happening organically from among those hanging out after the service, unprompted by any leader or individual.

In today’s chapter, we meet three new individuals. First, there’s Priscilla and Aquila (interesting that even Luke references the wife before the husband). The couple were among all of the Jews expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius (a well established historical event). The fact that they appear to have already been believers means that the Message of Jesus had already spread to Rome, though we have no evidence of Paul or any of the other apostles having made an official missionary journey there at that point in time.

The other individual we meet in today’s chapter is a man named Apollos, also a Jew who was a believer of Jesus. We don’t know much about his background other than what Luke provides here. From Alexandria, he’d been traveling and sharing the Message of Jesus in synagogues much as Paul had done.

The underlying message of today’s chapter is that the Message of Jesus had been unleashed. The concentric circles of the Jesus movement was spreading out further and further. This was not happening by official means led by authorized envoys of the twelve in Jerusalem. It was happening organically. The Message was being embraced and shared by the growing number of believers. Everyone was in on it, and everyone was compelled and encouraged to share the Message even if they, like Apollos, didn’t have a complete understanding.

Notice that Apollos wasn’t discouraged from what he was doing, even though there were some details he was ignorant about. Priscilla and Aquila took him in, educated him, and sent him back out with their blessing. Paul didn’t do that. Priscilla and Aquila didn’t send him to Jerusalem to be educated by Peter and the boys and receive an institutional stamp of approval. This early church was a living organism in which every individual cell was growing, multiplying, and shaking things up wherever it went.

That’s why I’m both excited and encouraged by what I’ve witnessed in my local gathering of believers in recent weeks. For centuries the Institutions of Christianity have encouraged believers to sit quietly in their pews, go about their business, and let the professional, officially trained and approved ministers do things. Suddenly, I find that everyday believers from all walks of life are rediscovering their spiritual giftedness, their personal calling to use those gifts, and Holy Spirit power that fuels and empowers both.

I hear that we have moved into a “post-Christian” and “post-Evangelical” world. Perhaps we are. Yet, from where I sit I’m witnessing something remarkable. As the old Institutional organizations wane and die, the organism is being resurrected.

Organism and Organization

“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul….”
Acts 13:2 (NIV)

For anyone who is interested in how organizations and human systems grow and function, the book of Acts provides some fascinating insights. The Jewish tribe from which the Jesus movement sprung was a rigidly structured religious system based on  tribes, families, and descent (thus all the endless lists of genealogies). Only descendants of Aaron could be priests and offer sacrifices. Only members of the Levite clan could work in the Temple. If you were a woman or you weren’t genetically connected to the Jewish tribe, then you were always held a lower class position. This was the centuries old system that the first believers were raised in. It’s all they knew.

Within weeks of Jesus’ ascension the “new” system turned everything these believers had once known on its head. Thousands upon thousands of people became believers. And it wasn’t just people from the Jewish tribe, but people from every walk of life. Holy Spirit power poured out on everybody regardless of gender, tribe, class, age, nationality, socio-economic position, or education. Not only was the movement organically growing exponentially, but everyone had a role to play. Everyone had a spiritual gift with which to contribute to the good of the whole. Read between the lines of Acts and you can feel the heady mess that Jesus’ followers had on their hands.

In today’s chapter there’s a little hint of this reality. Barnabas had been among the first believers, but certainly wasn’t one of Jesus’ original twelve. We find Barnabas in the town of Antioch where he seems to have some position of leadership along with guys named Simeon (Wait a minute. Who!?) and Lucius (What?!) and a dude named Manaen (Who is that?!) whose claim to local fame was having been the foster brother of Herod Antipas when he was a kid. Notice that Saul (Yes, that Saul, the one we know as the Apostle Paul) is named last on the list.

Welcome to the Jesus movement, the early church, where groups of believers sprung up everywhere out of nowhere and people you never heard of are suddenly leading local groups of Jesus’ followers.

This group in Antioch is worshipping and a person with the gift of prophecy gives Holy Spirit direction that Barnabas and Saul need to go on a journey to take the good news about Jesus to other towns. Notice that this sending didn’t come from the central authority, The Twelve, in Jerusalem. There was no committee formed, no delegation sent from Antioch to petition approval from the leadership in Jerusalem. Holy Spirit spoke direct to some dudes we’ve never heard of telling Barnabas and Saul to go. The dudes we’ve never heard of laid hands on Barnabas and Saul because they had the authority of Holy Spirit. It is an organic, living, breathing, growing, multiplying system.

And, it was messy.

It fascinates me to look at this organism of the early Jesus movement and then look at the denominations that make up most of the Christian churches in the world. When I look at denominations from Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, and Assemblies of God with their hierarchical org charts, their strict rules about who can do what, their educational systems, and their religious hoops it reminds me more of the old Jewish system from which Jesus freed the early believers.

In the book of Acts we witness the early church struggling to create systems to keep up with all that Holy Spirit was doing. An organization evolved and structures were clearly put into place. We as humans need structure and organization in order for things to work well. At the same time, what differentiated the early Jesus movement was that Holy Spirit was given free reign to work in and through everyone just as God designed the body of Christ to work. Along my journey I’ve observed that we always seem to put Holy Spirit back into the well ordered boxes of our human systems and organizational structures. When the Body of Christ is no longer allowed to be the organism it was designed to me and it is forced into rigid human organizational structures, it’s like putting a leash on Holy Spirit. Explosive, dunamis (the Greek word from which we get “dynamite”) power Jesus unleashed at Pentecost is reduced to a safe, child-proof sparkler.

There is a need for structure and organization, but I believe that we need to unleash Holy Spirit and rediscover the organic, living, breathing, growing, multiplying organism the Body of Christ was created to be.

Outside of the Lines

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
Acts 9:10 (NIV)

I’ve always had a bit of a rebellious streak in me. Working inside of large institutions typically brings it out though I don’t have a lot of examples to share because I’ve never been able to work well inside of large institutions. I’m allergic to bureaucracy. I believe God made me to work best from the outside in.

I was a few months shy of my 15th birthday when God first called me. “You will proclaim my word,” was the simple message I received. I was just naive enough, and just maverick enough not to ask questions about how. I just figured I was meant to start immediately. I delivered my first message just two months later, and within a year I was part of a team of young people traveling the state each week and speaking about Jesus wherever I was given opportunity.

As I read through the book of Acts, I’m continually struck by how the body of Christ expanded. My maverick heart immediately recognizes that it didn’t happen institutionally. In today’s chapter Jesus dramatically calls Saul, a man eager to be Jesus’ greatest enemy. Remember when Jesus said, “love your enemies and bless those who persecute you?” Yeah, Jesus did that with Saul.

Then Jesus calls on a man named Ananias. We don’t know anything about Ananias. We don’t know his background, where he came from,  or how he became a follower of Jesus. His name was quite common in that day. It’s like God choosing a guy named John Smith. Ananias was just a guy in Damascus sitting at home praying. He wasn’t one of “The Twelve.” He wasn’t in Jerusalem where the leaders of Jesus’ movement were headquartered and deciding things. Out of the blue this nobody in Damascus gets tapped by Jesus to heal the man who was His self-proclaimed worst enemy. His name only comes up one more time in the Great Story.

From a leadership perspective, I love what Jesus is doing. He isn’t confining the work of His movement to be channeled only through his chosen leader, Peter, and the other eleven proteges. Jesus is expanding the work through everyone who believes and follows. Holy Spirit is filling everyone. Spiritual gifts are being distributed to everyone; Even an unsuspecting, common man named Ananias sitting at home in Damascus praying.

Jesus isn’t creating an institution. He’s creating an organism just like He did back in the opening chapters of Genesis. He’s creating a complex living body made up of millions of individual cells each called on to do their individual part for the whole, that it may accomplish its purpose of love and salvation.

This morning I’m sitting in my hotel room getting ready to go work with a client, who happens to be a large, global corporation. Like I said, I work best from the outside in. It’s how God made me. I’m sitting here thinking about the stories of an angry man named Saul and a common man named Ananias. I love that Jesus works outside the lines. I love that He’s not a God of bureaucracy but a God of living, breathing, creative power and beauty. That’s the Jesus I know. That’s the Jesus who called to me when I was 14 and still inspires me almost 40 years later. That’s the Jesus this maverick will follow each day of this earthly life (and then into eternity).

 

Not Bricks and Mortar, but Flesh and Blood

“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.”
Acts 7:48 (NIV)

I remember going to church as a kid and being taught a certain reverence for the sanctuary of our church. It was a classically designed sanctuary with an altar that sat on a dais at the back. Over the altar hung a giant cross and from the bottom of the cross hung an old-style lamp which was “the eternal flame.” Just in front of the altar was a lectern that sat on one side from which the scripture readings and announcement were made. On the opposite side was the pulpit which was larger, and stood higher.

As children we were taught that this santuary was special. This was where you went to worship God on Sunday. There was sacredness attached to the room, the altar, and the pulpit. You were to be quiet when you were in there. No running. No playing. Don’t go near the altar unless Reverend Washington is up there serving communion.

After I became a believer and began reading God’s Message for myself, I came to realize that the entire notion of a “sacred” church building was never a part of Jesus’ paradigm. Jesus never asked his followers to build buildings. Quite the opposite. Jesus said, “I will destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days.” With His death, resurrection, and the subsequent pouring out of Holy Spirit, Jesus did away with the old notion that there was a physical building that would be the center of worship. The “church” Jesus came to build is not made of bricks and mortar, but of flesh and blood.

A time is coming,” Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”

In today’s chapter one of Jesus’ early followers, a man named Stephen, is dragged before the Jewish religious authority, called the Sanhedrin, in the Temple in Jerusalem. This is the same council who convicted Jesus and gave Him a death sentence just weeks earlier. Stephen, in his defense, walks the religious leaders through the Great Story from Abraham to Joseph to Moses to the Kings and to the prophets. He tells of Solomon building the Temple where he, himself, was now standing. Stephen then says to religious authorities:

“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:

“‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
    Or where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things?’”

This morning I’m thinking about sacred spaces, and enjoying the memory of being a kid and finding out that the “eternal flame” that hung over our church’s altar was simply a 40 watt light bulb that sometimes burnt out and had to be replaced by the custodian.

Having a physical building for believers to gather, worship, and create community is a great thing. I just never want to lose sight of the truth that Jesus never intended “the church” to be a building down the street. When Holy Spirit indwells me as a believer my flesh and blood becomes “the church” because God is within me, one with my spirit. I am sacred space. “Don’t you know,” Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, “that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” So, “the church” is wherever I happen to be. It’s wherever two or more believers gather together.

I don’t go to church. I am the church.

Everyday People Making a Difference

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.
Acts 6:6 (NIV)

When I became a follower of Jesus as a young person, it so happened that my sister and a handful of other young people from our mainline Protestant church had made similar decisions. Excited about what God was doing in our lives, we had some great ideas about how we could share the good news. We thought it would be cool to do a series of meetings over a weekend with live music and to invite a good speaker that people would want to hear. So, we took our idea to the pastor and educational administrator of our church. Our idea was shot down immediately.

This was the first of many run-ins I’ve had along my journey with institutional churches. Most traditional, institutional churches have been historically hierarchical (and patriarchal, as well). Authority is given from the top-down, and power is dispensed and brokered just as it was among the temple priests and teachers of the law in Jesus’ day; Just as it is in almost any large institution. My friends and I were shot down because we were just kids, our idea was not approved by the denominational institution, and the speaker we wanted, while highly educated and capable, wasn’t credentialed in our particular denomination.

The thing I find fascinating in reading through the book of Acts is this early, dynamic explosion of faith. Thousands were choosing to follow Jesus, believe His resurrection, and give everything to what had become a “movement.” But it was different than the institutional Temple where it began. The Temple divided people. There was a section for women, a section for Gentiles (non-Jews), and a section only for priests. The followers of Jesus, however, met together. Everyone met together, ate together, and prayed together whether old, young, male, female, Jew, Gentile, slave, or priest.

In the institutional, hierarchical Temple, only priests and approved teachers of the law had the authority to do certain things. When the Holy Spirit pours out in and through the followers of Jesus, suddenly the “unschooled, unlearned” believers began teaching and speaking with spiritual authority. Signs and wonders began to be displayed through all believers, irregardless of education, age, gender, tribe, or social standing.

In today’s chapter, a man named Stephen is described as having performed many signs and wonders. He speaks in a synagogue and, filled with Holy Spirit, argues circles around the institutional lawyers and teachers. Stephen wasn’t one of the twelve. He wasn’t an original apostle. He was just another member of the “Body” of Christ. He was simply an every day believer, filled with Holy Spirit, ministering to people whenever, wherever he could.

Last night there was a meeting at our house with brothers and sister from among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. Those who sat around our dining room table are going to be teaching in the coming weeks. There were two pastors from our local gathering’s staff, but there was also a banker, a diesel mechanic, a corporate middle manager, and a small business owner. Everyday people, male and female, older and younger, classically educated and not, all together using the gifts of the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Greatest Commandment so the Great Commission can be fulfilled.

Jesus’ mission was never about building or protecting an institution. It was about every day people connecting with God and loving others so that anyone and everyone can make the same connection.

“HELLO!?? Yo! Tom!! I’m RIGHT HERE!!”

“But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!”
2 Chronicles 6:18 (NIV)

On Saturday morning I woke up to find that Wendy had already gotten out of bed. In our house, this is a rare occurrence. 99.9% of mornings I am the first one out of bed. I got up and found her on the couch in the living room, writing in her journal.

There was nothing wrong, she explained. She had woken up and, in her spirit, heard God’s Spirit inviting her to spend some time together. So, she grabbed her journal and headed out in the quiet for a conversation.

For anyone who is not an experienced follower of Jesus, this might sound totally weird. One of the things that Jesus promised to His followers, however, was that He would send His Spirit (whom we refer to as Holy Spirit) to indwell those who believe. Jesus said that God’s Spirit “lives with you, and will be in you.” Once I learned to be in relationship with God in me, then experiences like Wendy had on Saturday morning aren’t that strange. I also have mornings when I wake and hear God’s Spirit whispering to my Spirit. “Grab your journal and make some coffee. Let’s spend some time together.”

This is one of the radical paradigm changes that Jesus ushered in through His death and resurrection. In sending Holy Spirit to indwell all of those who believe and follow, God is no longer “out there” or “up in heaven” but right here, right now, inside of me, and one with my spirit.

In today’s chapter, Solomon prays at the dedication of the Temple he built for God. Solomon’s Temple was dubbed by historians as of the “Wonders of the Ancient World.” The dedication of the Temple was a big deal and the Chronicler records Solomon’s dedication prayer. Time and time again in the prayer Solomon repeats the phrase “hear from heaven.” The paradigm is that God is “out there” and the plea is that God might incline His ear to hear. Yet, even Solomon’s father David wrote in the lyrics of one of his psalms “Where can I go from your presence?” and then described how no matter where David went, God was already there. So, if God is everywhere, then why would He have to “hear from heaven?” Why can’t God just “hear from here?”

Lately I’ve been noticing how even in my local gathering of Jesus followers we say we believe in the indwelling of God’s Spirit and we say we believe in what theologians refer to as God’s “omnipresence” (presence everywhere), but almost every week when we gather to worship the things we pray and the things we sing communicate the opposite. We ask for God to “be with us” even though Jesus clearly told us He would never leave us. So if He never leaves us, why do we need to ask Him to join us? If we believe Holy Spirit indwells each and every believer then why do we sing Come, Holy Spirit? Isn’t the Spirit right here, right now, indwelling us and connecting us?

I’m imagining a SNL like sketch comedy where I’m praying on Sunday morning “God, bless us with your presence,” while God stands right next to me rolling His eyes saying “Yeah, I’m right here. Remember?” As if not hearing God I continue my prayers. I beseech God “please be with me” and sing my pleas for His presence. God gets more and more sarcastic, waving His arms and shouting “HELLOOO!?? Yo! Tom?! Dude, I’M RIGHT HERE!!”

I know may be splitting semantic hairs. I have been, however, truly reconsidering and exploring this whole notion of God’s presence. I’m coming to the conclusion that what needs to change is not God’s location. If I truly believe what I say I believe, then God does not need to “hear from heaven” and move His presence from point A (heaven) to point B (where I am). What needs to change is my acknowledgement and awareness of my reality. What needs to happen is that my every day, every moment reality needs to match up to what I say I believe.

Three Rules for the Prophetic

Then the prophet Jeremiah said to Hananiah the prophet, “Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies.”
Jeremiah 28:15 (NIV)

On occasion, along my spiritual journey, I have had individuals speak prophetic words to me. In fact, it’s happened more in the last few years than ever before. Prophecy is woven into the fabric of the Great Story, and it is a part of most all of our great epic stories. Even the epics of recent years (e.g. Star Wars, The Matrix, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and etc.) have strong prophetic themes running through them.

In our age of enlightenment I’ve observed that we’ve discounted and diminished the role of the prophetic. In fact, I confess that even writing about it this morning gives me a certain level of discomfort. I’ve observed over time that the institutional churches in the West have largely ignored the fact that I Corinthians speaks of the spiritual gift of prophecy as being among the most important of spiritual gifts and believers are encouraged to be “eager to prophesy.” Most all the churches with which I’ve ever been associated have simply ignored this or have chosen to interpret “prophesy” as being a good preacher.

I get it. Prophecy is a mysterious, strange, and slippery part of the spiritual journey. It always has been.

In today’s chapter we get a fascinating peek at how it worked in the days of the ancient prophet, Jeremiah. It’s easy for casual readers to think that “the prophets” were unique individuals on the landscape of history but the fact of the matter is that most kings in Jeremiah’s day had hoards of prophets in their service. It was quite common for prophets to be spiritual “yes men” who divined what the king wanted and then gave him the spiritual rubber stamp with their prophetic visions.

Today’s chapter tells a fascinating story of a prophetic duel between Jeremiah and another prophet named Hananiah. Jer was hanging out in his ox yoke (see yesterday’s post) telling all the kingdoms of the region that they would end up in servitude to the King of Babylon. Along comes Hananiah who, in front of everyone, takes the ox yoke off Jer’s neck and breaks it. It was a public slap in the face. Hananiah upped the prophetic ante and told everyone what they wanted to hear: Things aren’t going to be as bad as Jeremiah keeps prophesying. Hananiah then claimed that after two years of serving the King of Babylon, God would restore all the kingdoms that Babylon would conquer.

Jeremiah then goes in private to Hananiah and tells the prophetic contrarian that not only is he wrong, but that he’ll be dead within a year. And, he was.

The realm of the prophetic is a mysterious place. Along my journey I’ve had people tell me that they “have a word” for me, but whatever it was they said amounted to nothing and was ultimately forgotten. I’ve also had some pretty wild experiences in which people have said things which were amazingly prescient and powerfully true.

Three rules I’ve come to embrace when it comes to people saying they have a prophetic word for me:

  1. Hold on loosely and let it be. If it’s true, it will be true. If it’s not, it’s not worth my time, energy or consideration. Those who receive a prophetic word and go out of their way to try to make it happen are likely to be as successful as the tragic hero in that Scottish play Shakespeare wrote.
  2. Consider the source. If someone claims to be prophetic yet, like Hananiah, their words are what most people want to hear and the prophecies usually seem to ingratiate the prophet to the hearer, I’m always wary. The occasions I’ve received prophetic words, the messengers were humble, unassuming, and at times as mysterious as the prophetic word itself.
  3. Listen to wise counsel. On my journey I’ve surrounded myself with wise and mature friends (my wife being chief among them). They know me, love me, and they desire the best for me. I trust them to assist me in being discerning about any prophetic word given to me.

Once again in my pursuit of what is true I find myself holding the place of tension between the two extremes. I don’t ever want to dismiss the prophetic outright, nor do I want to blindly give myself over to any and every prophetic message I hear.