The Wonder of the Church: Part 5 – Starting from Scratch
28. Clear your Mind
Mk 2:21,22 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”
The Problem of Presuppositions : A presupposition is, according to a dictionary, “a thing tacitly assumed beforehand at the beginning of a line of argument or course of action.” I concluded the previous study with the following words: I want to start by considering what would we do if we were starting utterly from scratch. The next few studies will be:
28. Clear your Mind
29. A New Creation
30. Life (1)
31. Life (2)
32. Being Together
So take a dose of amnesia, sit down on a desert island with a Bible, and see what might happen. I have tried to put myself in the position of starting completely from scratch, as if I knew nothing about church life at all, but the trouble is I have all these assumptions, these presuppositions, because I have history and I’ve just written twenty-six studies on the beginnings of it. It’s almost impossible to clear my mind of what I know from the past fifty years of being a Christian. But why should I want to do that? To perhaps see if it is possible to imagine what Jesus wants of us, without all the clutter of my (our) history.
An Imaginary Scenario: Supposing I just had a Bible, found myself on a desert island with a bunch of other people and we’re all unbelievers who have never been to church. We know nothing of church. I read the Bible I find in the remains of a wreck that got us there, and as I read my heart is strangely warmed on one hand yet convicted on the other. There is a sense of truth about what I am reading and I am warmed by the sense of love that comes through the stories of Jesus in the four Gospels and then I find myself convicted that I know nothing of this love. As I read on through the New Testament, I hear more of prayer, of talking to God and so one day, on my own, I talk to Him for the first time. I tell Him how wonderful I find the things I’ve been reading and yet how sorry I feel that all these years I have not known of it or experienced it, and I ask Him to change me, take me and do whatever needs doing in me to make me the person He would like me to be. I assume, having come down this path, it is first and foremost to experience more of this love that I have been reading about while at the same time letting Him (somehow?) speak to me to show me more of what He does indeed want me to become.
Church? But then one day I share what has happened with another of the survivors and they respond in exactly the same way as I did. Amazingly the word spreads like wildfire and before we know it there are over fifty people who have responded in the same way. As we read the Bible, we realize we are what the Bible calls ‘Christians’. “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” (Acts 11:26 See also Acts 26:28) and then we realize we have run across the word ‘church’ a number of times: “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it,” (Mt 16:18) and “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Mt 18:17). Then later, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events,” (Acts 5:11), and “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem,” (Acts 8:1) and “But Saul began to destroy the church,” (Acts 8:3) and, “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened,” (Acts 9:31) and “News of this reached the church in Jerusalem,” (Acts 11:22) and “Barnabas and Saul met with the church,” (Acts 11:26) and so on. We see that ‘church’ were the Christians gathered in various places, presumably where they lived. But what more can we gather about this concept of these Christians who gather together? Why do they gather together? What do they do together?
Back-tracking? Yes, I realize as I said that I have already written a lot of words describing how this body of people comes into being, but what do they do in the New Testament and why? If I’ve taken rather a tortuous route to get here, this far in this study, it is simply because I have history that includes the knowledge of so many different churches and it is almost impossible to clear away my presuppositions of what church ought to be, but I can’t help thinking that going back to basics must be a healthy exercise and if it challenges some of the things we do today, so be it.
Where to Start? The Gospels are not the obvious place to start; following the Son of God in the flesh was a limited-period experience. The easier starting place – as far as experience in history rather than principles in teaching is concerned – has to be Acts. At least it shows us a) how the church started off without the physical Jesus in their midst and b) what God led them to do. Now in respect of that latter thing, some of the things they did were clearly led or inspired by the Holy Spirit and others were natural responses to who they now were and the circumstances in which they found themselves. Let’s try and tabulate those two things:
|Things clearly inspired by the Holy Spirit
|All filled with the Spirit 2:4
||Prayed together 1:14 (men & women together)
|Spoke with other tongues of other nations 2:4-11 Peter preached 2:14-40
||Chose replacement for Judas 1:15-26 (Some point out nothing more heard of Matthias!)
|Apostles performed signs and wonders 2:43
||Taught by apostles, met in fellowship, held ‘communion’ and prayed together 2:42
|Peter & John heal a cripple 3:1-8
||Met regularly, had everything in common even selling goods to help others 2:44,45
|Gave answer to leaders 4:8-12
||Met regularly for breaking bread together, praising God and seeing more added 2:46,47
|Sprit falls as they pray 4:31 and enabled to speak boldly
||Went to temple prayers 3:1
|Peter exercises word of knowledge and Ananias dies 5:3-5 Ditto his wife 5:7-10
||Preached to crowd 3:12-26
|Signs & wonders performed by the apostles 5:12
||Arrested for preaching Jesus 4:1-3
|Angel releases apostles from jail 5:19,20
||Prayed together 4:24-39
||Apostles arrested & jailed 5:17,18
That is probably enough to go on with. In the left-hand column some of the things are specifically explained as happening as the Spirit filled individuals, power fell, angelic help given, but some, the miraculous happenings at the hands of the apostles, are clearly impossible to humans and are therefore obvious manifestations of the work and power of the Spirit.
Early Spirit Activity: Here we see inspired preaching, healings, signs and wonders, all very clearly the work of God in their midst. In each instance we see men inspired and empowered by the Spirit, i.e. responding to and being used by the Spirit. For future consideration, the questions might be asked, were these things purely for that point of history? Well history denies that. The records show that at various times (relatively rarely before the 20th century) such things have been seen in a number of parts of the church. Following the Spirit outpouring in the early part of the 20th century, and then subsequent movements of the Spirit (Charismatic movement, Toronto Blessing, Wimber movement etc.) in the late decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, it is obvious to anyone with integrity who bothers to research these things, these things have had a resurgence in various denominations and ‘streams’ within the Church. Perhaps we need to look later at why.
General Lifestyles: Without doubt the early church was impelled by the wonder of the Spirit’s outpouring, and their ‘life-in-common’ lifestyles are sufficiently challenging that we need to consider them more fully in subsequent studies. A common prayer life, regularly meeting together, specifically to remember the Lord, sharing with one another, caring for the less well off, etc. seem to be uncontroversial characteristics of their corporate life that perhaps we need to think about emulating. Watch this space!