2 Things the Early Church Did on Day One

As one who has spent all of my life in the Christian Church (also known as the: Restoration Movement, Reformation of the 19th Century, Stone-Campbell Movement), I have spent a lot of time in one particular chapter of the Bible. More than any other, for the churches I have been a part of, the 2nd chapter of Acts has defined what church is and what church is supposed to be.

But here’s the thing: usually, when we focus on Acts 2, we go to the end of the chapter, where it describes the response to Christ (Acts 2.38) and the reality experienced in the very first days of the church (Acts 2.42-47). But before we get to the end, the beginning also gives us some rich insight into being the church.

In the first four verses of Acts 2, we see the Spirit come upon the first followers of Jesus – and that same Spirit then lead the people to immediately begin sharing the story of Jesus with everyone who has gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. There are people there from Asia and Europe, the Middle East and Africa. And the author Luke tells us that all of them hear the message of Jesus in their own language.

So, right out of the gate, as the Church is getting started, we see 2 very important things:

  1. The Spirit leads;
  2. The Spirit leads the Church to share Jesus with ALL people.

Of course, we have to note that this early group consisted entirely of Jews and Jewish proselytes. But even as Luke describes what is unfolding in Acts 2, he is clearly pointing forward to a time in the not-to-distant-future when it will become clear to these Jewish followers of Jesus that their tribe will grow to make room for (surprise, surprise): the Gentiles.

A New Testament church, then, must value all of the stuff at the end of Acts 2; but it also must place a high value on what happens at the beginning: where the Church begins with a Spirit-led calling to take the good news to everyone.

I had lunch one time with a guy named Reggie. We had met each other at a ministers meeting, and then decided to get together and get to know each other a little better. He told me that the church where he ministers is a part of the Christian Methodist Episcopal denomination — the CME church, for short.

Now, I don’t know much about them; so Reggie gave me a little history lesson. He told me that when the Civil War ended, the Methodist Episcopal Church decided they would allow African-American folk into the church. But they decided to do that by letting former slaves start their own churches. So, in 1870, the ME church started the CME church – which, at the time, stood for the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church.

I’m sure they did that – starting a new branch of their church — because the differences seemed too substantial to have one church for two races. It had to be hard – downright impossible – to imagine how former slaveowners and former slaves could worship and serve as one.

And I think they were right. It had to seem impossible. In many — most — places and settings, it still feels that way. But what seems unattainable is described in Acts 2 as possible; but only if we start where Acts 2 starts: with the Spirit.

Now, not every church is going to be a rainbow color of differences; but each church should strive to reflect its community. If someone lives within, say, ten miles of your church building, your church needs to seek how the Spirit would use you and your congregation to reach out to them and let them know that Jesus is for them. And that there is a place for them in your church.

For some churches, this means that there should be Asians and white folks worshiping together. For others, it might mean making room for folks who speak Spanish. But for some, the variety of folks in your community might be less about skin color and more about economic status, or marital status, or age. If there are a fair number of single people in your church’s community, is your church doing things that aren’t just for families? Does your preacher use illustrations that aren’t always about marriage and family?

But even if most people in your immediate community look a lot like your church people, there are ways to let the Spirit lead you to express unity with those who are of different ethnicities and races. Partner with a church in another part of town. Invite a guest preacher to speak who has a different background. Invite someone to lunch who does church different than you, and just listen.

For, as I read Acts 2, it seems abundantly clear: any church that wants to reflect the earliest church must be Spirit-led. And one of the very first things the Spirit did (and does) is lead the people of Jesus to make the good news of Jesus available to everyone.

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What the DMV can teach the Church

On December 29, I had to make not one, but two visits to the DMV. On the last business day of the year, I had to stop in at two different Departments of Motor Vehicles.

Now, truth be told, I’m not sure either uses that title: DMV. But when I say that, you know exactly what I mean, right?

The first was the County Clerk, and I was there on their final day because, just that morning, I had received my settlement letter for our van that had been in a wreck. (To be clear, it wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t driving. Kim was. Ok, to be fair, it wasn’t her fault, either.) Anyway, to make sure I didn’t pay taxes on a van I no longer owned, I had to get it off the books by December 31. And it just so happened that on the last possible day, my settlement letter was available, so I ran by my insurance agent’s office, picked up the letter, and promptly took it with me to the County Clerk.

I walked in, pulled the little tab-number-thing, and noticed it said: 90. I looked up at the board showing what number they were serving. It read: 44. Thankfully, I was less than a mile from my house, so I went home, grabbed some lunch, and came back. And when I arrived back at the clerk’s office, the number on the board was 82. Sweet! Absolutely perfect timing. Before long, they called my number, I gave the woman my paperwork, and I was off.

Off to my next DMV visit. Or, more specifically, to the Kentucky Court of Justice, Division of Driver’s License – for my daughter’s driver’s test. As she took her test, I hung out in the waiting room. (Like the County Clerk, my wait wasn’t very long. Unfortunately, it was because she failed her test. Stupid parallel parking. But that’s another blog post.)

Anyway, as I visited two waiting rooms, I couldn’t help but think about how everybody has to go and spend time at the DMV. If you are going to drive a car, you will go to the DMV. Rich and poor. Black, white, and brown. Young and old. No exceptions. If you want to enjoy the freedom that driving affords, you will do your time at the DMV.

So, I couldn’t help but notice the other nervous teenager taking her driving test. As well as the immigrant navigating the DMV, perhaps for the first time. My attention was also drawn to the older white woman talking with the middle-age African-American lady.

And it occurs to me: the DMV is what the Church should be. A cross-section of the beautiful diversity that is people – those made in the image of God. Just as the DMV forces me to rub shoulders with people who are similar to me, and those who seem to be nothing like me – shouldn’t the Church be like that, too? Not to be PC, or to meet some political agenda – but because this is exactly what God has always had in mind for His Church.

The Gospel of Luke tells us that when Mary & Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple for his dedication, it brought them into contact with a guy named Simeon. And this old guy grabs the baby, and says these amazing words: This baby has been prepared by God in the presence of all people to be a light of revelation for Gentiles and the glory of the people of Israel (see Luke 2.25-35).

Luke says that Mary and Joseph are amazed – not sure what to do with these words. But what Simeon is saying is pretty straightforward, and a lot easier to understand in hindsight: Jesus came to bring hope to ALL people. To bring reconciliation among Jews and Gentiles – two groups at least at much at odds in Jesus’ day as any two groups you might want to mention from today’s world.

In other words, from the beginning, before Jesus spoke his first word, it is made clear: He has come that the Church might look more like the DMV. A place for all backgrounds, all colors, all nations, all languages.

And the reason the Church should look like that? Not, ultimately, because of the DMV. But because of Heaven. A place where, we are told, an uncountable multitude from every ethnic group, every tribe, every people, and every language will stand before Jesus and cry out, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7.9-10)

And so, it all comes down to this: Jesus is for everyone. Even those who can’t parallel park.

The Impossibility of Being Church

Church is hard. Really hard. Sometimes we act as if we can simply get people to read the Bible, pray, show up on Sunday, and then church comes naturally. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. Pointing people to Jesus is just the beginning. In some ways, the difficult work then begins. After coming to Jesus, we then spend the rest of our lives being shaped to look like Jesus. And we spend the rest of our lives doing that with other people. In other words, we are added to the Church, and we then spend the rest of our lives becoming the Church – together.

I am a fervent believer in the fact that the Church should be a place for all people. I’m not really interested in being a part of a congregation where we are only interested in young people … or old people. Men … or women. White people … or people of color. Rich people … or poor people.

As I read the New Testament, I see a picture of a Church that includes all folks who would respond to Jesus and seek to follow Him with others – who are sometimes very different. But this is hard. It is much easier to gather around me people I like, and who like me and look like me.

And what happens when you gather in one place people of different ages, backgrounds, perspectives, and interests? You get a bunch of different people with different interests and preferences. In other words, you get Congress. Or the Church. We all know how messy Congress is right now. Is it anything but the grace of God that Church is any less messy?

But I am passionate about being a part of a church that works its way through the mess – the challenge of finding unity of purpose and direction in the midst of the differences we find. This is what the New Testament talks about. And the truth is, it only happens when the Spirit of God fills the people of God, and empowers them toward a unity that is of God’s making, not ours.

So, whether you are young or old, male or female, white or not, rich or not, are you doing all you can to let God lead you to unity with those very different from you? In an earlier post, I mentioned three ways you can work to build unity in the diversity that is the Church. Can I add two more?

One: Be an encourager. Find ways to build others up, even those you disagree with – especially those you disagree with. Before you criticize someone, love them. And see that person as a brother or sister.

And two: Serve. It’s amazing how things look different when we get off the sidelines, and into the game. It’s surprising how we learn to appreciate and understand our differences when we aren’t simply noticing them from a distance – but serving together through them.

I am passionate about the unity of the Church in the midst of our diversity. But unity takes work. I am committed to doing that work by encouraging and serving with others. Will you join me?