Two childhood friends, Louis Giglio & Andy Stanley, have had wide exposure in the West over the last 15 years – and I think many of you would have seen at least one of their DVDs – like Canvas – or Indescribable.
And so when I came across Andy Stanley’s book Deep & Wide, one of the stories he shared about their childhood together, resonated with me on so many different levels.
Because it asks a 2 millennia old question: Who is the church for? I mean who is the Church for – is it is just for church people – or is there space for people who may come in from the outside. Who have never been to a church, don’t conform to what we like in church, perhaps sing differently (I know I sing differently although I wouldn’t call it singing), dance differently, clap their hands or dress differently, or perhaps have a different take on life issues.
I mean I loved the example that Andy Stanley gave – because it pressed all my buttons. Andy Stanley’s father ministered at the biggest Baptist Church in Atlanta Georgia – I am talking a mega church before mega churches became popular.
And so a lobby group decided to host the first Gay Pride parade in Atlanta — and it received much airplay especially as it was going to be held on a Sunday. And it would come right past the church which his father pastored – which as I said – was a massive Baptist Church.
In the weeks building up to it the leaders decided to move their church services earlier — so people would be able to get to church before the march and not be “corrupted” by what they saw. But, it didn’t work out that way, of course, because it gave the church members time to get out early — and they lined the streets to gawk at the passing parade.
Meanwhile the Methodist Church on the opposite side of the street had set up a water station. They were handing out water bottles to the participants. And it perplexed Stanley – because it left him asking the question: Who was really being Christ that day?
As I say it kind of forces me to confront all my prejudices and sensibilities…but who was really being Christ that day? What would you have done? What kind of church would you like to belong to?
Whatever your view of story I just shared we have to realise that for those who proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ — there has for long been tension between grace and truth.
And how do we live the new command that Jesus gave: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this will all people know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
Since the first Easter you can observe an unstoppable gospel. It has a God-given momentum. Starting with a small band of disciples huddled in the Upper Room with a desperate need for God’s power.
Most of them were Galileans, disrespected by the higher classes in Jerusalem as lower class, rural, uneducated commoners… This is the group that was used to spread the Way in the beginning – knowing that they will accomplish nothing without God’s provision.
Then God sends his Spirit in power – and everything changes. These uneducated Galileans start speaking the gospel in a multiplicity of languages that everyone can understand. The crowds are shocked – and Peter stands up to preach Christ crucified, risen and alive.
Peter, who just weeks before was afraid to admit he even knew Jesus, now stands under the power of God in front of thousands of people, proclaiming Jesus. And more than 3 000 people are saved.
Talk about church growth. By Acts 8 the church is starting to scatter to Judea and Samaria, preaching the gospel everywhere they go. Philip gets zapped by the Holy Spirit to go from one place – where he has built the first mega Acts church — to lead an Ethiopian to Christ on a dusty road far too the south.
In Acts 9, Saul, the persecutor of Christians becomes a follower of Christ. And in Acts 10, racial and ethnic barriers to the spreading of the gospel begin to collapse – and in Acts 11 the church in Antioch is founded as the future base for missions.
In Acts 12 as Peter sits on death-row in a jail cell, the church prays and suddenly Peter’s chains fall off. He practically sleep walks out of prison.
And in Acts 13 Paul launches into his travels from city to city, preaching the gospel, healing people of diseases, casting out demons and even raising people from the dead.
Isn’t that exciting, awesome! And the language used is impressive as Luke points again and again to God: The Lord, he says, added to their number daily those who were being saved. What a vibe!
And that is why it was so important for Peter – back then — to understand that this Jesus movement wasn’t just for the Jews – but for all humankind.
You see there was some tension. As the Jesus message over flowed into Gentile regions, many non-Jews heard and believed. And once they believed they wanted to join the Jesus gathering. A gathering that was made up primarily of Jews. And many of the Jewish Christians were not quite ready for that. After all, Jesus was their Messiah. And they had been waiting a long time for this.
I mean that is why I sometimes get a bit disappointed when church people think that God only shows up at their churches – or that their teachings are the only way to God – and the rest of us have lost the plot.
The same stuff cropped up 2000 years ago. Just about everywhere Peter and the other apostles went, Gentiles believed. And these new believers formed new Jesus gatherings – which were majority Gentiles.
To make it more difficult the Jews in the Jesus gatherings did not consider themselves converts – rather for them it was an extension of Judaism. But the Gentile believers were different. They were leaving their old religions behind and converting to become followers of Jesus.
They didn’t view their conversions as a conversion to Judaism – but to Jesus. And that was a problem for the Jewish believers. How could someone become a follower of the Jewish Messiah without becoming a Jew? Interesting question?
Gentile believers brought their customs, habits and values with them – and it was highly offensive to some of the Jews – especially their eating habits. Also these Gentiles were showing up at synagogues wanting to be with the other believers – but they had no idea of the Jewish Sabbath, ceremonial cleansing and other traditions.
It was messy, very messy. Maybe they thought we will give the Gentile Christians a checklist on how to become Jewish.
But for the men – this would have meant much more than just learning about Jewish culture and the Hebrew Scriptures. Much more. Becoming Jewish would require surgery – so at this point there may have been a lot more women and children in church – and the men were outside looking after their donkeys and camels!
So the first ripples started being felt. That is when Peter addresses the first of these groups when they get grumpy. He tells of his own stories and experiences. That God is moving amongst the Gentiles. And that is why he says later – because of the food and ritual cleansing issues: So then God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.
You see they were starting to drift towards a churchy, graceless kind of church. And that’s not what we want. Because if we are honest each one of us is in a different space.
So St John’s should be a place where the curious, the unconvinced, the sceptical, the used-to-believe, and the broken – as well as the committed, informed and sold out come together — around Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the Living God.
That’s why, as James the apostle advised us, don’t put any stumbling blocks in the way of those who are turning to God.
All of us has value in the eyes of God and we are called to create a community right here that reveals those values. But realise too that sometimes God wants to move us into a fresh understanding – just like Peter faced all those years ago – be open to the move of the Spirit.