During the season of Epiphany, we celebrate the manifestation of Christ as Savior to a world that is desperate for good news. This year at IBC, we will explore the expansion and triumph of this good news both for individuals and people groups as recorded in the book of Acts, and this is the second sermon in the series. These entries (usually on Saturdays) are where my thoughts went after thinking on it for a few days.
“Are you sure you want to go back?”
No one ever asked me that question. See, I hadn’t been a professional Christian in almost a year.
I’d seen life outside the Sunday morning/holiday world. The long, lazy Sunday mornings with coffee & newspapers and the Sunday New York Times crossword. The Wednesday nights where I’d been able to get caught up on the DVR’d TV shows instead of with the small group. Plenty of time to sleep in since I didn’t have any coffees with folks who were struggling in their walk…you could get up, take care of spiritual business, work out & shower at a much more leisurely pace. No leaving work undone because of a crisis…real or perceived. Plenty of time to decompress. Plenty of time to loiter with family instead of handling that premarital counseling session. No hospital visits. No being out and about to be at the events your students were involved in. Just me, Jesus and my family and simply finding ways to serve folks you ran into every day instead of because it was on your work schedule.
It was beautiful. I deeply enjoyed it.
But two churches had made offers for me to serve professionally. I was telling my friend why I was turning one of them down and accepting the other one. But my friend knew the other parts of my story:
That the very first ministry I served had leadership decisions that resulted in incredible liens by the Internal Revenue Service who didn’t take kindly to the government not getting their fair share. Folks quit, and I spent the next three years of my life starting from below zero to get the ministry square with the Feds…who, as an aside, do NOT play games (but they will work with you as long as you’re working with them in good faith). We did that, but it took a toll on me & my family.
Then I was in a situation where, well, I learned a valuable lesson on what happens when you teach a lifestyle of grace in a local congregation that says they teach grace but are pretty heavy steep in legalism. Yes. I know they all SAY they teach grace as a motivation for the current spiritual life, but brother, most don’t. That situation gave me the key questions to ask in those very interviews that got me job offers when those churches gave me a chance to “interview them.” Things worked out and a tremendous crop grew out of that group I served, but there were plenty of behind the scenes deals where I took a battering.
The church where I served before my year off, well, the senior pastor had an affair. You can imagine the next six years of my professional life and all the fallout from something like that…not only professionally but also personally. If you can’t imagine those, you can check out the archives on your left and bounce around from 2006 to 2012 and you glean an awful lot about it.
So, you can see where my friend would ask the question: Not only had I tasted a terribly enjoyable life outside that world, my time inside that world had the trifecta of financial mismanagement, legalism and sexual sin all wrapped up in it.
And, to answer his question, I’d have to say that, yes, I’ve been battered and rocked and bruised and scarred by the church, man. That’s the low-hanging fruit of an easy-to-write tell-all book that’ll never get written…by me, anyway.
But the reason I went back joyfully is something Craig Pierce touched on in his sermon The Unity of Believers last week. First, he taught on the Acts 2 passage many of us are familiar with:
They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Reverential awe came over everyone, and many wonders and miraculous signs came about by the apostles. All who believed were together and held everything in common, and they began selling their property and possessions and distributing the proceeds to everyone, as anyone had need. Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved.
Then he talked about the reason that church was able to do those things:
You know what [Peter] did? He pointed them to Jesus. One look was all it took for them. And then the Holy Spirit came and you know what the Holy Spirit did? He pointed them to Jesus. You know that’s the job of the Holy Spirit…and they could not contain themselves. Of course they dedicated themselves to the apostles’ teaching. It was about Jesus. Of course they devoted themselves to meeting together. They were getting together with other people who were in love with this Jesus. Of course they went into people’s homes and of course they helped each other. It was their way to be hands and feet of Jesus. These people? They were head over heels in love with Jesus. And that’s what you do when you’re crazy, head-over-heels in love with someone.
Sure, I’ve been thumped pretty good by the Body at-large on occasion (and I didn’t even touch on the times parents disagreed with me and all the other crud every pro Christian deals with on a regular basis).
But I’ve also been on the loving end of a group of folks that were pointing to Jesus. A Body that was dedicated to teaching Jesus. A group of people that met together and were devoted to Jesus.
In that first ministry I saw some unsaved folks take their first look at Jesus and one look was all it took. The Holy Spirit did a lot of things in a group of young people that couldn’t contain themselves. I still touch base from time-to-time with those people via Facebook…the things they’re doing for the Kingdom make it worth fighting through all the other crap on my timeline.
In that second ministry I was a group of people who were dedicated to meeting together and looking at Jesus. Maybe even a little TOO dedicated to it. They couldn’t get enough of His grace and so I kept teaching it. They are involved in everything from making a difference in the arts to serving alongside their spouse at a church to one couple even planting a church that is now thriving to being dedicated to raising godly children in their home to teaching in public schools.
In that last ministry I watched people highly committed to being the hands and feet of Jesus. They’d go anywhere in the world or across their cubicle to serve. They’d give up vacations to build a home in Juarez. They’d raise money for wells in Africa. They’d make each other aware of sex trafficking here and abroad. They’d teach a small group in the middle school ministry. I could go on and on.
And I didn’t even touch on the ways those folks ministered to me and my family. They bought a new roof when our leaked. They wrote cards and letters to say thanks that I still have (I know because I just moved the box to our new house and lost an hour reading through them). They laughed like crazy with me. They shared their homes with us. They opened their lives to us…and they asked me to perform their wedding ceremonies, not as a hired gun, but because they loved me and wanted me to. I can’t begin to say all the ways they loved me.
So, yes, likely more than most folks, I’m well aware of the Acts 5 reality that churches face (it didn’t take too long for the church to scoot from the Acts 2 wonders to the very human fleshly stuff, did it?). I’ve lived them. You have, too.
But I’m sure I wanted to go back. Because I’d seen that amazing and beautiful symmetry of how a group of people tends to be when they’re all looking at Jesus…
…pointing at Jesus…
…head-over-heels in love with Jesus…
…and Craig is right: that’s what you do when you’re crazy, head-over-heels in love with someone.