New Beginnings

Series: Preacher: Date: April 7, 2013 Scripture Reference: Acts 1-10; 12

Acts 2:42 – They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

43 – Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.

44 – All the believers were together and had everything in common.

45 – They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

46 – Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,

47 – … praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Acts 4:32 – All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.

33 – With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all

34 – …that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales

35 – …and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

The U.S. Department of Justice has published this 100-page downloadable book—and it’s a book that no parent wants to read. The book’s title is: When Your Child is Missing.  The cover of the book lists key bullet points and action steps for parents who face this horror…statements like:

  • You’re not alone
  • Hope is essential
  • Trust your feelings and share them with law enforcement officials
  • Distribute pictures
  • Keep your focus
  • Exercise caution…and finally

The book includes true stories to illustrate the importance of following the guidance in these bullet points—stories like those about four-year-old Shelby Marie Cos, six year old Colleen Nick, and other missing children. The parents Jacob Wetterling, have been searching for him since 1989. They continue to post messages saying, “We’re still searching for you and we will never quit.” Parents like the Wetterlings will spare no expense in their passionate search for their missing children.

I mention all this because GOD DOES THE SAME THING. You see, because of the fall, all God’s children have become “lost.” As the prophet Isaiah puts it we have all “gone astray.” In our reading from THE STORY, we know that God responded to the fall by initiating a massive, three-phase search and rescue strategy to help His lost children find their way home. The first phase was ISRAEL. God wanted a nation through whom He could show His character and a nation to call His lost children back to Himself so He chose the people of Israel for this task. The second phase was Jesus Christ, God’s only Son. Jesus, Who came to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) and declared, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes [home] to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) This week in our reading we saw that the third phase in God’s search and rescue strategy is THE CHURCH. Before He ascended to Heaven Jesus gave the church the job of sharing the good news that God had sent Him to pay the sin debt for all mankind…making THE WAY for people to be forgiven and come home to God.

The church was equipped for this task on that first Pentecost Sunday when God bestowed on those first believers the powerful gift of His indwelling Holy Spirit a gift every single believer since receives the moment he or she decides to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord. Jesus foretold this, the beginning of Phase Three in Acts 1:8 when He said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” On that amazing day, God’s Spirit united believers into a powerful tool—THE CHURCH—that He used to turn the world upside down bringing His lost children home and that brings us to the question I want us to deal with this morning, namely: What does it look like when a local church is the kind of church God had in mind? Or, to put it another way, What qualities are found in churches that are effective tools in God’s “phase three” strategy? Of course, the best place to look for an answer to this question is the book of Acts because it describes the very FIRST church—the original deal! We read about this amazing congregation a moment ago and from the description of that church in our reading I’m sure you would agree that it was a great church. Now—it wasn’t a perfect church—there is no such thing—but it seems to me that they got the main things right. It was an amazing congregation that God used in a powerful way!

So, borrowing an idea from Kyle Idleman, teaching pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville (to whom I am deeply indebted for much of my content),  I want us to take this description of the first church in the book of Acts and then compare and contrast it with some images that capture how many people think of the church today. This will help us see how far we have gotten from the original—in our understanding of the church as God intends it to be and perhaps help us to see what we each need to do as individual believers to get our thinking more in line with our THIRD PHASE assignment from God.

(1)   First, these days many think of the church as a sort of MOVIE THEATER.

Now, a movie theater is where you go—usually on the weekend to spend a couple hours to be entertained and perhaps even a little inspired—depending on the movie of course. We also go there to be distracted from the trials and tribulations of life. These days we pay a lot of money for this form of entertainment—even more for popcorn and other snacks! Once we fork over the cash for our ticket and food we find a comfortable seat. Some theaters even have seats that recline so we can relax as we enjoy ourselves. Then, after the film as we leave the theater the first thing we do is go into movie critic mode.  We discuss things like: Was it a good movie? Did it go to long? Did the plot drag? How were the special effects? Would we give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down? And—this is how many people tend to approach or judge the church. As Kierkegaard put it, “We tend to think of church as a kind of theater: we sit in the audience, attentively watching the actor onstage who draws every eye to himself. If sufficiently entertained, we show our gratitude with applause and cheers.” Now, Kierkegaard said this a long time ago but unfortunately many believers around the world still enter sanctuaries like ours here at Redland and think of themselves as the audience. In their mind they come to be entertained and hopefully a little inspired. They hope the pastor will tell some good jokes to make them laugh a bit and share some moving stories to make them cry a bit.  They hope the music will be of a professional caliber and will be performed according to their tastes.

In some churches—certainly not Redland—when they leave they give the service a thumbs down because for one or more reasons the service wasn’t satisfying. I’m reminded of a story I often share with my 101 class as we review the Bible’s teachings about the church. It involves a typical American family that was driving home from church one Sunday and the atmosphere in the car was quite negative. Dad was fussing about the sermon being too long and sort of boring. Mom said she thought the organist played too loudly during the second hymn they sang. Sis, who was a music-major in college, said she thought the soloist sang about a half pitch off-key during most of her song. Grandma said she couldn’t hear very well—since they were sitting toward the back. And…as they pulled in the driveway of their home, little Joey, who had listened to all of this, started to fuss about the woman who sat in front of him with a big hair do. Then he paused, nudged his dad, and said, “But, Dad, you gotta admit, it was a pretty good show for a dollar.”

Well—this is not the way the New Testament describes a “phase three church.” No—in the church as Acts describes it, you and me—we are not the audience. We are not here to be entertained. Don’t get me wrong. There is an audience—but you’re not it. I’m not it. No—the audience is GOD HIMSELF. Well, with this corrected mindset, we should leave a church service not asking ourselves, “What did I get out of it?” but rather, “What did God get out of it? Was God pleased?” Philip Yancey writes, “Church exists primarily not to provide entertainment or to build self-esteem or to facilitate friendships but to worship God. If it fails in that it fails.” Walter Wink puts it like this, “To worship is to remember Who owns the house.”

Listen GOD is the audience and the thing that pleases HIM most is not funny or moving sermons or huge choirs or rockin’ praise teams. The thing that pleases God is changed hearts—the broken and contrite hearts of individuals who realize how they need to change and then, perhaps because of worship, commit themselves to that change. The members of the first church understood this because those Christians didn’t gather for an hour of fun.  Instead, as it says in verse 42, they gathered to, “DEVOTE themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” And this word, “devote” is an important word. It means they COMMITTED themselves to the teaching they heard.  They strove to live in accordance with the Scripture. I mean, the things they learned in church became a way of life for them. The Apostle’s teaching—the BIBLE—was what guided and directed them day in and day out. It was their compass.

That’s the way it is in “phase-three” churches today. Their members come together to study the Bible not to be entertained but so they can know better how to live in ways that please God. They DEVOTE themselves to it in every way.

  • They spend their money—they make financial decisions—based on the Bible’s teaching.
  • They parent their children according to its guidance.
  • They let it be the guide when it comes to their work ethic.
  • It guides their understanding of marriage.
  • In fact God’s Word guides ALL their relationships.

We see this attitude in the response of the early church to the very first sermon every preached in a “church.”  After Peter delivered it the book of Acts tells us this: “When the people heard the sermon they were cut to the heart and said, ‘What do we do?’ ‘What do we do?’” So when a church like ours gathers to worship our response should be to humble ourselves as those first Christians did and pray,  “God, what do I need to do…what do I need to change in my life?” When we walk out of church we don’t say, “How was worship today?” but rather, “God, what do I need to do differently in order to make You more pleased with the way I live?”

Too many churches get this wrong because, as A.W. Tozer says,  “Our churches these days are filled with a soft breed of Christian that must be fed a constant diet of harmless fun to keep them interested.” Listen—to be more like the EARLY CHURCH—we need to strive to be less like our CULTURE—a culture that breeds self-centered entertainment junkies. This cultural influence is why many of us come to church and like to be challenged but we don’t want to change. We like to be fed but we don’t want to spend any time in the kitchen helping feed or teach or serve others. We want the church to be united but only as long as everyone is united around me and what I think is best. This is why many believers want PERFORMANCE instead of worship.  It’s why we want the Holy Spirit to come—but with the understanding that the service can’t last more than an hour. Well, the first church wasn’t like that—and today’s churches must steer clear of this attitude as well if they are to fulfill their “phase-three” responsibilities.

(2)   A second way some people think of the church is this. They think of it as a STORE.

I don’t know about you guys but on average Sue and I spend a couple hours every week walking up and down aisles of various stores, a grocery store or a department store or a thrift shop. And as we walk we shop. We look for what we want at the prices that we want to pay.  If we don’t find it in one store we’ll go to another. Well, unfortunately, this mentality has become a part of many Christians in our consumer-based culture…to the point where many believers spend a lot of time CHURCH shopping. They visit numerous churches in order to find something that has what they want. They even have a mental shopping list that includes things like: “good-preaching, a children’s ministry that their kids like and a youth ministry their teens like…” and so on. And—to a degree I understand why they think this way.  For example, I know how important it is to find a church that helps you with the all-important task of parenting. Plus, when I attend a church I want to hear a sermon that feeds me spiritually. But—this “shopper’s” mindset is not found in the church in Jerusalem and I say this because it seems to me that in that church what we find is a group of people who were committed TO FELLOWSHIP.

In other words, not only were they devoted to the APOSTLES’ TEACHING—they were devoted to ONE ANOTHER as well. Idleman puts it this way. He says, “The Christians in the first church didn’t act like customers in a store but rather like members of a family.” Listen to verse 44 again, “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” Now, don’t misunderstand that “everything in common” phrase. These early believers liked different things. They had different opinions like all families do. But like a family they shared the same “spiritual genes” in that they all had Jesus in their heart so they were brothers and sisters—spiritually speaking and they interacted that way. This week I came across a TRUE story about two guys named Randy and Gary who delivered furniture for the Dow Furniture store in Waloboro, Maine.  Their customers would often say to Gary and Randy, “You guys look a lot alike.” And, as you can see in this picture they do. That’s Gary on the left—Randy on the right.

Well, Gary and Randy just dismissed these comments as coincidence because everyone knows furniture delivery men tend to look alike.  I mean, to do their job they have to be a certain size. They have to have muscles in the right places, etc. So, Randy and Gary didn’t give these comments a second thought.  But then a law changed in the State of Maine which allowed Randy, who was adopted, to find out what was on his birth certificate.  So he did some research and found out that his biological parents had already passed away.  But he also discovered that he had a brother who was one year younger than him. He also learned that his biological brother was born on June 10, 1974.  And he didn’t think too much more about that, but then one day the two of them were out making deliveries—and once again a customer said, “You guys seem to look a lot alike. There’s a definite family resemblance.” And as they drove back to the store, Randy thought, “Well, why not?” So he nonchalantly asked Gary, “When’s your birthday?” Gary said, “My birthday is June 10, 1974.”  Immediately Rand knew the truth. They WERE brothers. They have the same mom and dad.  There’s a great quote in the article. It said, “There’s nothing like family, especially when you didn’t know you had one.”  Now—I don’t know about you but I have had the same experience Randy and Gary did.  I’ve met people all over the world and the better I’ve gotten to know them the more they have felt like family…and you probably know where I’m going with all this. I’m saying that we have brothers and sisters in other believers because we both have the same Heavenly Father and we have the same elder brother, Jesus, living in our hearts. Maybe you have a co-worker and you wondered why you got along so well—and then one day you learned why—He was a Christ-follower too. Or maybe you were on a mission trip and felt this special closeness to someone even though he didn’t speak English—and you realized it was because he was a Christian. This is the relationship we are called to have in the church. We are called to be brothers and sisters—to have a family mentality where we put each other’s needs above our own and sacrifice for one another and serve one another. This is one reason church membership is so important. A local church like ours is a family that you publically commit to be a part of. Now—we have a great family here at Redland but like all families we are not perfect.  We have our own “cousin Eddies” if you know what I mean. Rick Warren calls these “challenging cousins”  “EGR’s” which is an acronym for “extra-grace required” and we have some of them here.  You know who you are. Well you might not but we know who you are. And don’t feel bad because the chief EGR at Redland preaches from behind this pulpit every Sunday. I’m saying we’re not perfect but we are a family. We’re committed to each other. We love each other in spite of our weaknesses and we strive to meet each other’s needs. And, if you haven’t joined our family I want you to know we’re still going to love you like family even if you don’t but you won’t get the fullest benefit from Church as God intended church to be until you walk the aisle during an invitation hymn and commit to join. I’m saying the church is not a place we come to GET but a place we come to GIVE—a place we come to SERVE—and we show that commitment to serve with a public decision. As Idleman puts it, “We are not customers shopping for what we want; we are brothers and sisters sharing life together.” Remember as Paul Tournier put it, “There are two things you cannot do alone. One is be married and the other is be a Christian.” Everyone NEEDS a church family!

(3)   This brings us to another misconception that some embrace when they think of the local church. They look at it as a RESTAURANT.

Now, what do you do when you go into a “sit-down” restaurant like TGI Fridays or Bonefish Grill? You go in there expecting to be served and waited on. You want the tables to be clean and you want the food to be prepared according to your tastes. You want it to be brought to you. Well, that’s how many people think of church. They think of church as a restaurant or sorts, where they come and sit down to be served. We see this in people who explain why they leave a church by saying, “We wanted to be in a place where we could be fed more. That church didn’t meet my needs.”  And—I understand that statement to a degree but the fact is one of the best ways to be fed spiritually—one of the best ways to GROW as a Christian—is to serve others. Idleman puts it like this. He says, “Spiritual growth and spiritual maturity happens much more quickly in the kitchen than it does at the table.” We grow—we get our needs met best—by working alongside other family members in a local church doing the things God calls us to do.

I have been a part of the local church all my life and I would say the more members you have working in some way the healthier your church is because a church is a place of selfless service. We see this in the church in Jerusalem. In verse 45 it says, “(They were) selling their possessions and goods (and) they gave to anyone as he had need.”

Paul Curtis is the pastor of Crossroads Christian Church in Brooklyn, New York. He talked about how his church responded the storm that hit NYC and the north and said, “Tragedies don’t just have to rock our world, but tragedies can give the church the opportunity to rock someone else’s world with extraordinary kindness and the love of Jesus.”  And that’s right. I mean, we have opportunities to show the love of Jesus, but it can’t happen if we’re all focusing on being fed. You can’t show the love of Jesus if you’re just focused on self.

When I go to visit in the hospital I always wear a tie. Bobby and Kevin do the same.  We do this for a couple reasons. First, it shows the patient we care enough to look our best when we come to see them but it also makes us look more professional. Nurses and docs see that we’re not just normal visitors and they let us in to see the patients more readily if we’re dressed up a bit. But—this kind of garb can also cause problems. More than once I’ve been confused as hospital staff. People have asked me questions and I’ve had to say, “Oh—I don’t work here. I’m just a pastor visiting.” I share this because I think this kind of thing should happen here at Redland all the time. I’m not saying you should all wear ties—–but I’m saying people who visit here should think everyone in our church works here. They shouldn’t be able to tell who’s a pastor and who’s not—because the truth is we all DO work here. We all SERVE here in one way or another. That’s part of what makes our church so healthy. We are a priesthood of believers. We all are in the ministry. We all serve in this church family. We’re not customers—we’re employees!  And that’s the way it needs to be in every “phase three” church.

A few weeks ago I met a young couple at the end of a worship service and I have forgotten their names because I just met them once but I love the way they introduced themselves. They said they were new to our area…they had just moved here… but they were VERY ACTIVE serving in their home church in Maine. I love that—because it shows they have a healthy understanding of the Bible’s teachings about church. It’s a place for Christians to SERVE. If you are that couple—I want you to know I’ve been praying God would lead you to join our church because we need more laborers. The more employees we have—the more we can do to fulfill our phase three mission!

(4)   A fourth misconception of a local church is this. Some think of  it as a GAS STATION.

They think of it as a place where they pull up every Sunday for a quick fill-up and then they go back about their daily lives. In other words, they think of church as a one-day-a-week kind of thing. Well look at what Acts tells us about the first church. In verse 46 it says, “EVERY DAY they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.”

Now—I have to say, I love these two words, “glad” and “sincere” because that’s not the words I hear most used to describe Christians these days. Usually we hear Christians described with words like “judgmental” and “hypocritical”  so let’s each just stop long enough at this point in the sermon to make a private commitment to God to try and live in such a way that people on the outside see our joy and our authenticity!

In any case, I’m not saying that a church is healthy if its members go to the church campus every day.  That’s not what this text in Acts is getting at. No—it’s saying we are the church not just one day a week here at 6922 Muncaster Mill Road—but every day of the week where ever we are: at work, at school, on the job.  Redland Baptist Church is not a place—it’s a people—who serve God every day of every week all over the place! In fact our church is more about what happens outside these walls than what happens in them. It’s more a Monday-Saturday thing than it is a Sunday thing. This is what Paul was getting at in Romans 12:1 when he said, “I urge you therefore brethren—fellow church family members—to present your daily lives as living and holy sacrifices acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.”

(5)   Here’s one more misconception. Some people think of the church as a FITNESS CENTER.

Now—you might think, “Well, Mark, that’s not a bad illustration of a church because a gym is where people go to get into shape.” But that’s not really true. Research shows that most people who actually go to gyms are already in shape and they go because they want to stay that way. In fact, most people who have gym memberships never actually go to the gym. I guess it just makes them feel better about their health to know they are paying that monthly fee. Well, a lot of people don’t want to go to the church because they think the church is for people who are already in good shape and just go each week to stay that way. They think the church is for people who have healthy marriages for people who are perfect parents for people who don’t suffer from addictions. In short, they think the church is for healthy people—people who have their act together and so people who aren’t healthy—people with problems—tend to steer clear of most churches. But this is wrong. As the old saying goes, “A church is not a museum for saints. It’s a hospital for sinners.” The truth is all of us are “out of shape” — all of us need to grow to be more like Jesus. We are all equally dependent on the grace of God. I think the first church understood this. They knew THEY were imperfect sinners so they WELCOMED imperfect sinners and this is why as verse 47 says, “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The population of Jerusalem was drawn to the grace of that first church. They knew it was a place you didn’t have to be perfect to attend.

Philip Yancey lives in Colorado these days but he used to live in Chicago and in his book Church, Why Bother, Philip Yancey tells about his home church there…the LaSalle Street Church.  He writes, “I learned an enduring lesson about what grace looks like in action from my church’s response to Adolphus, a young black man with a wild, angry look in his eye. Adolphus had spent some time in Vietnam and most likely his troubles started there. He could never hold a job for long…and his fits of rage and craziness sometimes landed him in an asylum. But when possible, Adolphus was a regular attender at LaSalle. If he took his medication on Sunday, he was manageable. Otherwise, well, church could be even more exciting than normal. He might start at the back and high-hurdle his way over each of the pews all the way down front to the altar. He might raise his hands in the air during a sermon and make obscene gestures…Or…he might wear headphones and listen to rap music instead of the sermon. As part of worship our church had a time called ‘Prayers of the people’ when members could pray out loud for something. After that the entire church would say, ‘Lord, hear our prayer.’ Adolphus quickly learned that this could be a platform for him to air his concerns so he’d say things like, ‘Lord, thank You for creating Whitney Houston and her magnificent body!’ After a puzzled pause a few chimed in weakly, ‘Lord, hear our prayer.’

Regular attenders came to expect the unexpected from Adolphus’ prayers. Once he prayed, ‘that the white honkey pastors of this church would see their houses burn down this week.’

No one replied, ‘Lord  hear our prayer’ that time. Adolphus had already been kicked out of three other churches…but a group of people at LaSalle, including a doctor and a psychiatrist took on Adolphus as a special project. Every time he had an outburst they lovingly pulled him aside and talked it through using the word, ‘inappropriate’ a lot. We learned that Adolphus sometimes walked five miles to attend LaSalle on Sunday because he could not afford the bus fare. Members of the church began to give him rides. Some invited him home for meals. Most Christmases, he spent with our assistant pastor’s family. Once, boasting of his musical talent Adolphus asked to join the praise team. When it was discovered he had no musical talent he was allowed to continue to play only as long as his electric guitar remained unplugged. The day came when Adolphus asked to join the church. Elders quizzed him on his beliefs, found little by way of encouragement and put him on a kind of probation. They said he could join once he could explain what it meant to be a Christian and when he learned to act appropriately around others. He could continue to attend of course—and everyone treated him like family—but he couldn’t join officially until they knew he was a Christ-follower. Against all odds, Adolphus’ story has a happy ending—no doubt because of the grace-driven actions of the members of LaSalle Street. He calmed down. He started calling on people when he felt the craziness coming on. He even got married. And on the third try, he was finally accepted for church membership.”

As Yancey points out by sharing this story, the church is for people who are NOT in shape—people who know they desperately need the grace of God. The fact is you can’t be a phase-three church—unless your members are grace-driven. So to review, the church is not a movie theatre. And we are not here to entertain you and we are not the audience.  The church is not a shopping center where all of us come in and we shop for what we want and we make sure we’re getting what we like. The church is not a restaurant where we come in to be served and waited on.  The church is not a gas station where we swing by once a week to get filled up and then we just head back to life as usual.  The church isn’t a fitness center. It’s not a gym only for people who are in good shape. No—I think the best illustration for a healthy phase three church is this. It’s a BODY—more specifically, it’s the body of Christ. We are the flesh God is using now to do His will. We are his hands and feet. We are His voice.  With His indwelling Holy Spirit, He is our Head—and a healthy body obeys its head! Yancy writes, “What is God like? Where does God live? How can the world get to know God? God’s presence no longer dwells in a tabernacle in the Sinai, or in a temple in Jerusalem. God has chosen instead to dwell in ordinary, even ornery people like you and me. God now reveals Himself in the world not through a pillar of smoke and fire, not even through the physical body of His Son in Galilee, but through the mongrel collection that compromises my local church and every other such gathering in God’s name.”


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