God Has Left The Building

God works through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building.

In his second volume (Acts), Luke tells us that his first volume (Gospel of Luke) recorded “…all that Jesus began to do and to teach.” The story of Acts, then, tells us all that Jesus continued to do and to teach by means of the Holy Spirit through his Church.

One of the first things we notice is what happened to Jesus in volume one happens to his Body in volume two. Jesus lives by the Spirit, and now Jesus sends his Spirit to his followers. Jesus preaches the Kingdom of God, and now his followers proclaim Jesus as King. Jesus healed the sick and lame, and now his followers do the same. Essentially, Luke is using these examples to call his readers to be like Jesus in their context.

One of the clearest examples of being like Jesus is the trial and martyrdom of Stephen. Just like Jesus, Stephen is a man full of the Spirit, full of grace and power, and performs great wonders and signs. And just like Jesus, Stephen faced opposition that sought to put him to death based on false charges and testimony. And just like Jesus, he refused to back down from his mission.

If you’ve never read Stephen’s sermon to the Sanhedrin, take a few minutes and read Acts 7. It’s a wonderful summary of how God’s presence and action has never been restricted to any one building, land, or people. Stephen reminds us that God has worked in many places and in many ways through many people.

We are reminded that God called Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans to Harran, then to the promised land. He worked in and through Egypt during the famine under Joseph. He worked with and through Moses while in Egpyt, and in Midian. He dwelt on Sinai while Israel rebelled in idolatry at the base of the mountain. God dwelt in the Tabernacle throughout the wilderness, and even when Israel finally settled in the promised land. He then dwelt in the temple of Solomon.

What Stephen so skillfully does is point out from the Scriptures that God’s power and actions are not tied to one building. It never has been, and never will be. God works through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building.

Finally, he gives us one last reminder from God’s own mouth that his presence and action isn’t limited to “houses made by human hands.” Stephen does all of this through Scripture, reminding the Sanhedrin that Moses predicted a prophet would come that would be like him. That “Righteous One” is the very Jesus they had condemned to death. He then calls this assembly out on their sinful resistance of the Holy Spirit and rejection of Jesus.

And they killed him.

It’s always a tragedy when people ignore the word of God, but even more so when it leads to violence. Stephen’s defense is nothing but quoted Scripture of how God has worked in the past, and a claim that he works the same way today. He points out the inconsistency of the Sanhedrin by denying the Holy Spirit’s working in the world, and how their ancestors ignored the Word of God as well.

The rejection of Stephen’s testimony was a rejection of God’s work in the world, just as it was when they rejected Jesus. God works through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building. And that was a message that the Sannhedrin refused to hear.

Stephen’s death shouldn’t be looked at as just a tragedy (and indeed it was a tragedy.) When evil men intended to silence this movement of Jesus’ disciples through violence, God used their actions to bring salvation “to the ends of the earth,” just like he did through Jesus. In short, God chose to work through a variety of people in a variety of places, and this event put things into motion outside of the church building (Temple).

You see, the intense persecution that broke out because of Stephen’s Spirit-fueled sermon caused Christians to flee Jerusalem. And while we might think this is a bad thing, God again used it powerfully to take the Gospel into a variety of places!

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.

Luke 8:4 NIV

Jesus had already told his disciples that they were to be witnesses in Jerusalem (which they were doing quite well), but also in Judea, Samaria, and everywhere else in the world (which they were not doing). This persecution that no one would want is the very thing God uses to spread the saving message of Jesus to non-Jews outside of Jersualem.

Essentially, we Gentiles are followers of Jesus today because this tiny Jesus movement faced persecution in the years following the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, but continued to talk about Jesus wherever they went. God worked through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building, and you and I are here as a result.

The seat of power in Jerusalem that ignored the workings of God were completely destroyed. Because the religious authorities in Jerusalem rejected the prophets of God, Jesus the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit amidst God’s people, the religious establishment was completely destroyed. But God’s mission and God’s people were not! They continued with the mission set before them, and we are here today as a testimony of their faithfulness!

We often forget that God’s mission all along was to create a people for himself that would lead all people to Him. When God called Abraham, he promised that this plan was to bless all nations. We forget that God wanted Israel to be a kingdom of priests to proclaim his goodness and glory before all nations in hopes of reaching them. We forget that the law called Israel to be a people who looked after the foreigner because God loved them too! We forget that through the Isaiah God ordained his Temple as a house of prayer for all nations, and through Jeremiah proclaimed that all nations would be present in his assemblies. We forget that the Great Commission of the New Testament was a command to carry out the Great Commission of the Old Testament.

God works through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building.

If we’re honest, we would have to admit that we have largely lost the fire and the mission that Israel and the early church were called to. North American churches have enjoyed such a comfortable existence for so long that we have forgotten our mission. We really like things the way they are, and we’re quick to complain any time we are inconvenienced in the slightest with regard to our religious freedom. At the same time we’re painfully slow in spreading the Gospel of Jesus to the lost around us. This seems to be the opposite of what God has called his people to do!

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m thankful for our freedoms, and I deeply love our churches. I’m also keenly aware that our freedom has led to complacency and atrophy in the American Church, while intense persecution and violent oppression has simultaneously led to an explosion of faith and church growth in areas like China, Iran, and India.

I’m thankful for our freedom. I’m thankful for the peace we enjoy. But we must never equate our freedom of religion with the fulfillment of the mission God has set before us. God works through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building. Therefore, we must be willing to get outside of our comfort zones and get about the mission God has called us to!

God has blessed us with the freedom to assemble, yet we often don’t.

God has blessed us with freedom of speech, yet we rarely use it to tell others about Jesus.

God has blessed us with peace, yet we forget that we are in the midst of a spiritual war.

In many ways, our freedoms have killed our mission.

Stephen’s sermon is true. God works through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building. And every time God’s people get complacent and lose the mission God has set before them, his Spirit moves through his faithful people to work in a new way.

If we are not on fire for the mission of sharing the Gospel of Jesus with the lost, God’s mission will be carried out without us. God’s Spirit will move his faithful people outside of the walls and structures to carry out the mission regardless of the cost. And instead of wringing their hands at every inconvenience and setback, God’s faithful people will view these things as new opportunities to do God’s will in their community. God works through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building. Are we willing to join Him in his work?

Acts 7-8 remind us that in a world that values complacency and comfort, we are called to be like Jesus. It will always seem easier to keep things the way they are and to ignore the leading of the Spirit. It will always seem easier to just assemble with our own people and ignore the lost around us. It will seem easier to define our own version of faithfulness and redefine the mission God has set before us. But when has God ever called us to do the easy thing?

The Open Table

The presence of Jesus is amplified and recognized when we most fully live like him in the world.

As Luke draws volume 1 of his Gospel to a close (Acts being volume 2), his focus shifts slightly from what Jesus does in the world (vol. 1) to what his disciples do in the world as his representatives (vol. 2). There are, however, a few stories between that overlap. Jesus has risen from the dead and appears to the disciples intermittently while his disciples learn to continue ministering without the constant physical presence of their Messiah. My favorite of these stories is the road to Emmaus.

As I work through this text in preparation for preaching it this Sunday, I’m struck by two major points. The first being that the disciples have lost all hope because of the crucifixion. They watched as their friend and Messiah was arrested, beaten, and executed, and now they are at a loss for what to do. The story is clear that these two disciples were leaving the rest of the group in Jerusalem, presumably to return to their pre-discipleship life. Listen to their words of despair and confusion. After asking this stranger (Jesus) about his knowledge of the previous week’s events, Jesus responds:

“What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”

Luke 24:19-24 NIV (emphasis added)

Their confusion and hopelessness is clear. “We had hoped…” indicates that to them this is no longer a reality, and “…they did not see Jesus” leads us to the confusion and disbelief. Yes, the women saw it and told about it, yes, the men went there, but there was no Jesus.

The grief and dismay that surrounded this event is effecting these disciples deeply. They had been told repeatedly that Jesus would be crucified, but would rise again (Luke 9:21-27, 9:43-45, 18:31-34). This news, however, was so shocking and contrary to their own notions about Jesus’ ministry that they simply didn’t make sense. And now, at this moment on the road to Emmaus, the teaching they had received was absent from their minds and hearts.

The solution? Jesus points them back to Scripture!

“Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

Luke 24:26-27 NIV

In the midst of grief, dismay, and hopelessness, Jesus points the disciples back to Scripture (read the Old Testament). This is of enormous significance. He could have simply revealed who he was to them and restored their faith through the physical sight of himself. Yet Jesus doesn’t operate this way. Instead, he points these disciples back to the timeless texts of their Bibles (Old Testament). These texts established their faith as children, and Jesus uses them to clarify what God was doing in the world through Jesus.

The second thing that stands out to me is how they recognize Jesus. Now that their hope and faith is restored through a message from Scripture, Jesus is going to continue down the road and leave the disciples. Instead, the disciples invite this man (who is still a stranger to them at this point) to stay and eat with them.

Table fellowship is a huge theme in Luke’s Gospel! Over and over again we read of Jesus eating with those marginalized by society. Most of his criticism from the religious establishment came as a direct result of who Jesus ate with. What we often miss is that eating with someone was a sign of acceptance of that person. When you eat with someone you now share a bond, a commitment to one another. This is why it’s all the more shocking that Judas betrayed Jesus on the same night that they dined together in the upper room.

On the way to Emmaus, the disciples renewed faith leads them to act like Jesus. Notice that they welcome the stranger and open their table to him. And it is at that moment, when they imitate Jesus through the open table that they recognize their Lord.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.

Luke 24:30-31 NIV

When the disciples were hopeless and their faith almost gone, Jesus points them back to the Scriptures. And when the disciples act like Jesus in welcoming this stranger to their table, their eyes are opened, and they recognize the presence of their Lord.

Opening the Scriptures and gathering around the table with our Lord was vital to the faith of these disciples. It was in these events that the disciples encountered the risen Jesus. Why would it be any different for you and me?

So…what are you doing this Sunday?