Acts: New Beginnings – Part I

Defining Church

This summer we are going to begin a series based on the growth of the Church in the Biblical book of Acts.  Acts picks up where the Gospels left off and tells the story of God’s new movement in the Church.  Today we are going to look at the way Jesus defines “church“.  Quite honestly, I’m sure that we define church in ways that have little to do with the way Jesus defines church.

As a side note: Galloway Church has had an interesting history that has been marked by a series of building projects.  The first was a church built of reclaimed lumber on route 417.  That home was abandoned for the brick church on the corner of Cherry Tree and Seysler Road, put into service in 1962.  Growth of the congregation led to two further building additions. We have been worshiping in the present worship center for ten and a half years.  It is a good time to reflect on our mission and future goals.  Sometimes it helps me to wrestle with questions like that by asking what we would do if we were starting from scratch in an empty room.  I invite you to do the same as we begin.

How do we define church?  If we look at the way people view membership in a church we might get insight into what we really think church is about.

Years ago, an elderly couple reached out to confirm that they were listed as members of a church I pastored.  Their concern centered on the desire to be able to have that membership acknowledged in their obituary when they died.  Scarcely anyone in the church knew or remembered these people as they had not participated in the church in a very long time.  What does this tell us about our view of membership and the meaning of church?

Another experience left an indelible mark on me regarding church membership.  In another church that I pastored, we were recognizing people who had been long term members.  We’re talking people who had been members of that church for more than 40 and 50 years!  As we were situating the group of honorees for a picture, one of the elderly women struggled to her feet to move to another seat in order to avoid sitting next to another woman.  Members together in the same church for 50 years and yet they could not be seated next to each other for a picture!  What does that say about membership and the meaning of church?

Some churches and individuals treat membership like an exclusive access to certain privileges and services, like a club membership.  One of the most grievous examples of this I have seen is in churches were ministries like VBS are exclusively for their members.  I’ve heard churches and individuals declare that they did not want kids whose families don’t attend and more importantly, don’t support the church and its programming financially.  I’m so glad that here at Galloway, our VBS, Mega Sports camp is intentionally shared with kids and families who don’t go to church.  We know that our resources are given to the mission to offer others the gift of Jesus.  But what does it say if membership means that we are now in the club?

Now, let’s look at how Jesus defines church.  We can look to a number of different scriptures to help us.

Matt 16:18 NLT Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. (note that I named the wrong chapter and verse in the sermon)

Jesus says that he will build his church, which is not a building but a group of people, based on the faith declaration Peter had demonstrated in Jesus.  He declares that these people with have power to overcome the powers of hell.

Matt 28:18-20 NLT Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations. baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Here Jesus again described the church as a group of people, his disciples, whom he empowered to go and make disciples.

Acts 1:4-8 NLT Once when he was eating with them, he commanded them, “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before. John baptized with water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”….But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus more specifically tells us that the power that he gives will come from the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is so important for his power to be in them that the disciples are told to wait until they had it before trying to do anything.  This emphasizes the importance of Pentecost as the launch of the church for that day is the day the Holy Spirit was first poured out.

Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is to you, to your children, and to people far in the future—all who have been called by the Lord our God.”

In his sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter again emphasized the importance of the gift of the Holy Spirit for all Christians.  He declares that being a Christian begins with repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ.  Peter declares that all who repent and declare their faith (in baptism) in Jesus will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This reminds us of Jesus conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:3-7) where he explained that we are born again (begin a new life) through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The gift of the Holy Spirit in the believer is so defining that when Paul met some students of John the baptist and wanted to clarify their identity as Christians, he asked if they had received the Holy Spirit.  (Acts 19:2)

With all that these scriptures offer, perhaps the best summery of Jesus’ plan and purpose for the church is found in a prayer he offers in John 17:20-24 NLT:

I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.
I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.

Jesus prays for you and me to have an intimate spiritual connection with him that in turn produces a close bond with other Christians that then multiplies to others.  These are the three things that define church:

  1. An intimate spiritual connection with Jesus. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ deals in us just as he prayed.  How is your connection with the Savior.  Does the Holy Spirit guide and motivate you when you pray? Do you gain insight and inspiration for life in God’s word? Do you love Jesus with all your heart? Are you living in faithful obedience and sacrificial service to Christ?
  2. A close bond with other Christians.  Do you love people in the church and love sharing life with them?  Are you rooting for others in the church and helping them to grow in faith and love? Is there anyone in the church that you can’t sit beside for a picture? Are you deeply committed to the mission and ministry of the church? Are you more than a group of people who show up at the same time and same place for a program on Sunday?
  3. Multiplying to others. Are you passionate about others getting to know Jesus or do you think that is someone else’s thing? Do you seek to share you faith with others? Are you investing in anyone-in prayer, in service, in friendship-to lead them to encounter Jesus?

This week as the Holy Spirit searches your heart, begin to pray Jesus’s prayer.  Ask the Lord to fulfill his prayer in you.  Pray each of the three aims and meditate on how God can make that happen in you.

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