The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea; and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. But when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, stirring up and inciting the crowds. Then the brethren immediately sent Paul off on his way to the sea, but Silas and Timothy remained there. Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed.
I give you a lemon. I tell you it is an apple – maybe you have heard of them before. I tell you it is firm, juicy, slightly tart, delicious. So, upon my recommendation, and memories of your mother’s apple pie, you take a huge bite of the lemon and find it is indeed juicy; but it is also really sour and makes your eyes twitch as the acidy juice catches in your throat. The rind is thick and bitter. It wasn’t at all what I described, nor how you thought an apple should taste. When you complained to me, I told you that it was your fault it tasted like that, and so you went away promising to never eat another apple.
This is a picture of some churches in North America today – more than we realize. People go to a gathering. They have heard talk of the fellowship of Believers, of unity of the Spirit, of spiritual gifts – a wonderful place to be sure. Then they attend a local church down the road and what they experience is something totally different. They are told not only where and where not to sit, but they are told what to think, and that to question leadership will cause them to be booted from the fellowship. And, if they are unfortunate enough to experience some of the great trials life can give, they will be shunned as if they are tainted or infectious. There are control issues, people concerned with social standing – think of the worst of high school when you are an outsider.
There are studies that identify people who have experienced church and spiritual abuse and so they leave the church, thinking all churches are like that. This is most troubling, because Jesus said He would build His church, and that the gates of hell would not stand against it (Matthew 16:18). We cannot follow Christ effectively without a local body of Christ. Some people have grown up in church and yet never experienced the church as the body – just as an intuition. I read articles and comments from people who identify themselves as the “Nones” (no church affiliation, but still pursuing Jesus and ministry), and the “Dones” (those who are done with church, and while they maintain a certain personal spirituality with Jesus, have no connections with others in the body of Christ. These are not the only testimonies, for there are many who, while turned off the church, have made peace with the imperfections of humanity and found a way to maintain ministry and connection with the body of Christ in spite of personal or third party dysfunction.
Do you know people like this? What do they say? Do?
I want to take a few minutes and share a few areas that we need to consider if we want to weather the kinds of storms we have been talking about. Maybe these people have missed one of these areas.
1. Know who God is. You have to be convinced of who God is. This is the foundation of your faith, and if you don’t have a proper understanding of Jesus Christ you will never last in your faith. I don’t mean you need to know the infinite with your finite mind, but you have to be convinced of some basic things about God. Do you believe that God is Sovereign? Do you believe He knows all? Do you believe in free will, that because we are created in the image of God as humanity, we have choices to make? These aren’t choices of destiny – no person is strong enough, smart enough, or big enough to make those kid of decisions. The choices we have, the only ones that count, are what are we going to do with Jesus today – how am I going to respond to God’s grace, to His offer of love? Many people go through life, go through church, thinking they know who they are and who God is. They think they are sold out to Jesus; that He is their Forgiver and Leader, but He isn’t. Just look at the fruit of their life, the words they speak, their actions, and their thought life. If their life isn’t reflecting increasingly the character of Jesus they are missing something. That something is Jesus, and the work of the Holy Spirit in them. The Holy Spirit can only do His work when they are yielded to Him, when they have responded to the grace of God by becoming His bondservant. So many people are unwilling to do that, even people in church. They want to be master’s of their own fate, and in a manner they are, because judgement is prescribed for the foolish who turn their back on God. Who is God to you? Do you follow God at a distant, or have you come close and allowed Him to be a refining Fire in your life? What are you convinced about God? How is that apple tasting today?
2. Know your church. Some years ago Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave a speech at the University of Toronto in which he spoke of the idea of community from an African perspective: “We say in our African idiom, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms. I need you in order to be me as you need me in order to be you. We are caught up in a delicate network of inter-connectedness. I have gifts that you don’t, and you have gifts that I don’t—voila! We are made different so that we may know our need of one another. The completely self-sufficient human being is subhuman.”
Does this speak to the essence of I John 3:11: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. … This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” How self-sacrificing we are called to be. I think we err when we think the church is only the people gathered here. We like to say, “it isn’t the building, it’s the people”. The problem is this definition is not complete. The church is the people, but it is the people in whose heart God reigns. Jesus is head of the church, not just anyone in an office with a name on their door. When we begin to exclude Christ as a necessary element of the church, we begin to classify as churches all those places and all those people who are far from Jesus. They may have made a commitment, but when that commitment is about power, or the Law – anything other than love – they are straying from what the body of Christ is, and what it is called to do and be in the world. If we allow that to be the church, we WILL be disappointed.
When God wanted to reveal Himself to the world, He took one man, not an existing nation, and made His own nation – Israel. He revealed Himself through that nation, that the world would see the reality of Him, and what His character was like. With the New Covenant God has moved from that nation, to the church. The church’s purpose is to reveal His reality and His character – nothing more, nothing less. And so you have to find people exhibiting His character just like you. Don’t look for something in others when it isn’t in you. If that is the case, you have to go back to “Go, do not collect $200”, and start again. It has to start with you. Go back to number 1 above.
3. Know your Scriptures. Finally, you have to know the Bible. People can pull out individual verses all over the place to prove their point, their opinion; and people do it all the time. How do you know if you should listen to this person or that? Get out your Scriptures and check it for yourself. Look at the context, look at the broad principles of hermeneutics. Don’t let some bully in a pulpit or some self-righteous church member hit you with the Law. You don’t have to take it. When you know the truth yourself, you can discern what is right and wrong (just don’t become a bully yourself). Only those stuck in the spiritual nursery sit in the crib and cry. It is time to grow up. The Bible says to stand firm in the armour of God. Prepare yourself. Recognize a lemon for what it is. Eat the apple.