Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Rethinking the Church

What is the church and what should it be? There have been more than enough books in the last few years attempting to wring some sense out of those questions, and I don't pretend to be able to do better than the biblical  scholars and those who are on the fronts lines in re-imaging the church have done. But I do have a perspective that may be a little different. My thesis is that we have examined the church from the wrong end of history. And because of that we misunderstand key New Testament truths.

What I mean is that we have looked at the church through 21st century eyes rather than 1st century eyes. Yes, in many cases we've looked at the church in Acts and the epistles with the goal of discovering and  appropriating the genius of the early church, but we've failed to see the church's connection with God's plan and means in the Old Testament.

Peter didn't make that mistake. In his sermon on Pentecost he connects the coming of the Holy Spirit to the prophecy of Joel. He sees what was happening as a continuation of  what God has been doing rather than a brand new thing. So what had God been doing?

It was God's purpose that the Israelites be a witness to God in the world. Abraham and his family were to be a blessing in the world. Moses says that as the Israelites follow the laws God has given them, other nations would take note of the goodness of those laws. They would be attracted to the God who wisely gave them. And the Israelites were to welcome the stranger, and in Jonah, care about even their enemies.

But they did not. They built walls to keep the world out. They saw the world around them  as the enemy.

So God expelled them from the land. For seventy years they were captives in Babylon and were from Babylon scattered around the known world. We see a bit of that picture in the book of Esther. Still they created little Brooklyns isolating themselves from the world around them. Not realizing that the Messiah was to be a world king, not just their king.

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the Jews saw the Messiah as a national savior who would throw off the bonds of the Romans and bring in a renewed kingdom. But that was not who Jesus was. Though his mission was first to Israel, his eyes were upon the world. He was a Messiah of peace with God and then peace among men, and for that they killed him. He was not the Messiah they wanted.

But God was not finished. His purpose to take the message of his love to all still stood. He would call others to the task - the church. And so Jesus' commission to his disciples in Matthew 28 is "make disiples of all nations."

But wait. (That is what he said, literally.) Wait in Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from on high. He spoke, of course, of the Holy Spirit. But that's where our 21st century thinking gets a little weird. We fail to see that the coming (anointing) of the Holy Spirit is as much an Old Testament thing as the mission.

In the Old Testament, prophets were anointed, kings were anointed, priests were anointed, both by the Holy Spirit and symbolically with oil, giving them authority in the eyes of people and spiritual power to accomplish the task God had given them. This Pentecost experience was no different.

In order to accomplish the mission of taking the gospel to the world effectively, the disciples needed the anointing of the Spirit. God gave that to the disciples gathered at Pentecost and, as Peter promised, to all who repented and were baptized - and to everyone who has ever been added to the church. It is not a second blessing experience. It is THE blessing - though we may have to recover our understanding of the anointing and faith in the promise of God.

The sign of that anointing was similar to the sign of ecstatic utterance given to the prophets of old - the disciples spoke in tongues. Additionally, as a symbol of the promise made by John the Baptist, they were baptized by fire as tongues of fire appeared above their heads.This experience was not new. Many prophets experienced something miraculous as a sign of their anointing.

What was new was the fact that ALL who believed received the anointing of the Holy Spirit. The experience of tongues that accompanied this anointing was repeated several more times as new groups of people were joined to these first Jewish Christians. But speaking in tongues was not something that every new believer experienced. It was not necessary. The Holy Spirit had been given.

But as part of the anointing every believer did receive one or more of the gifts of the Spirit. These were necessary Spirit empowerments for fulfilling their mission. Yes, some like the Corinthians turned them into competitive games, but that is a misuse. It is not God's intention. This too is not unlike the experience of  men and women of the Old Testament upon whom the Spirit came giving them the ability to  accomplish their mission.

What was new was that every believer was anointed and gifted. Now the purpose of  God that all the world hear thre gospel of his  love could be accomplished.

And it was. Believers and Apostles took the message of the gospel to the far corners of the known world by the end of the first century. In succeeding centuries ordinary believers and apostle-missionaries have taken the gospel to nearly ever tongue and tribe and people and nation. The church is doing  what Israel refused to do.

What the church fails to recognized is that the gifts of the Spirit are God's enabling of that mission. The mission is prior. The gifts enable. What some have done is deny the gifts, relegating them to the past. That discourages their use in the mission. Others have elevated certain gifts and made them signs of the Holy Spirit's filling, but have left them there. Again the connection to the mission is severed.

God is patient. Our failures have not prevented him in accomplishing his ends. But how much more might we be used in his mission if we understood the point of the Spirit's anointing and gifting?

The early church understood and were used mightily. I have to think that we might be as well if we were to understand and believe.

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