Sunday, October 02, 2005

Revolutionary Grace

The desire to change the world is one which runs strong in the hearts of humans everywhere. Nobody who walks down the street of a city and sees a homeless person, or who turns on the television and watches a report of distant starvation, can believe that all is right in the world.

And in rooms in every settlement on Earth there are people gathered, dedicated to transforming society. Some will be planning to march on military bases or save guinea pigs and whales, and others will be coordinating campaigns to halt the executions of condemned prisoners or raise the wages of sweatshop workers.

The recognition of the difference between good and evil, and the compulsion to liberate people from bondage, is an instinct which God has planted in us. He performed the ultimate act of liberation when He came in human form. Not only did He identify the sin lurking in all of us as the root of oppression and evil, but He created the opportunity for us to be freed from this force of decay and united with him in a life ruled not by death but love.

This is the truth which has thrilled and driven the church for 2,000 years. In the book of Acts we see how a tiny band of Christians took this flame of truth across Europe and how God made its glory burn in the hearts of men and women. The anthropologist Margaret Mead could have been describing this band of believers when she said:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

But the fantastic spread of the early church is much more than a sociological phenomenon. It is the work of a God who loves the people he is saving, who has turned himself towards them and is determined to save them completely. In his writings, Paul frequently marvelled that God had chosen such a seemingly motley bunch of human beings with which to begin his world-changing work, but that was the majesty in his method.

When we look at the Christians of this era we can see qualities of their community which sped the spread of the wonderful news. And, in the stories about evangelism Luke has written in the book of Acts, we are reminded that God is not a distant divine presence but an actor of incomparable power and freedom. He is the source of wisdom, commands, miracles and surprises.

One of the most striking features of the infant congregation at Ephesus was their incredible ability to warmly engage with the people who lived in their midst. They don’t appear to have been frightened by people who believed completely different things about life, the universe and pretty much everything. Nor were they scared of individuals who had an inkling about the workings of the Hebrew God and the person of Christ but were a long way from knowing orthodox truth.

Conversion in Ephesus was often preceded by years of conversation. In the modern West, we like stories of revivals – modern day Pentecosts – where thousands of people become believers at once. Also, since the Reformation, we’ve responded to differences in interpretation and emphases concerning Christ’s message by rapidly disintegrating into thousands of competing denominations.

But when Apollos arrived in Ephesus with a fervent but incomplete story about the message of Jesus, the local Christians didn’t hound him out of town. Instead, we read:

When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.

Apollos, with his great rhetorical skills and learning, could have been a formidable opponent of the church in Ephesus. But their gentle and warm welcome led to his faith gaining clarity, and the church gaining an encourager. He went off to Corinth just as Paul left the city for the Ephesus. FF Bruce describes the suggestion that it was Apollos who wrote the book of Hebrews as an excellent guess.

Such strategic hospitality does not equate to being soft of heresy. The church, even when it’s difficult, has to aim to live out Christ’s prayer that we may be One as He is One. We also have to be vigilant in ensuring that what we perceive as Christian truth is testified to in Scripture. Paul warns the Ephesian leaders:

I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

Paul could tell the difference between those who were sowing disbelief and those who were in error but longing for true belief. These two groups of people can probably be found in all Christian traditions today. When the great Apostle came to Ephesus he encountered a band of disciples whose lives had been changed when they accepted the message of John the Baptist but who had yet to learn of the power of Christ’s work and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Paul knew that all people are making some response to God’s revelations of Himself. Just as a flower or plant can’t help but react to sunlight, men and women stir at the majesty of nature and the disquiet in their souls at the sight of evil. Everything tells us there is a higher power, even if we respond by this fact by trying to deny it.

The Athenians had acknowledged the possibility of an unknown god, and Paul had told them of Yahweh’s gift of Christ. Now, with these disciples of John the Baptist, he saw people who knew the beginning of the Gospels but had no idea about the end. When he brought this knowledge they believed and were baptised. And when this happened, God acted: “When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.”

This powerful episode brilliantly illustrates the crucial combination of repentance and faith in Jesus. Paul saw his task as to tell both Jews and Greeks “they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” Any Christian message which lacks these two components will collapse. And if any congregation loses grasp of this dynamic and practical command it can only become lacklustre and confused.

God gave these 12 disciples a personal experience of his power – a memory they could savour and treasure of God reaching them in this world of flesh and blood; a glimpse of the heady days in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit visited the Church with tongues of fire.

We don’t read of Ephesus experiencing anything quite so sensational. In fact, for two years and three months, Paul publicly debated with the Jews and the Greeks. This could have seemed like a bit of a waste of energy. Why spends months arguing with Jewish leaders who have no interest in following a crucified Messiah and Greeks who consider your entire worldview laughable? Aren’t there needs within the church we should be focussing on?

But proclamation is what the church is all about. The German theologian Emil Brunner said the Church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning. His friend, Karl Barth, said faith that believes in God cannot refuse to become public. God is He who did not wish to remain hidden.

In these lengthy discussions, the scent of truth and freedom was billowing out across Ephesus and the world. Luke tells us: “All the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of God.”

During this time, God was not a spectator. It was not as if the church was a watch which he wound at Pentecost and was happy to leave ticking away. We read: “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.”

Anybody who wants to hear the message of Christ in this society can log onto a website or walk into a Christian bookshop or a church meeting. But this requires an act of the will, and also the belief that the church has (a) a distinct and relevant message and (b) it might be true. Sometimes this happens, but at an unfortunate time in Western history when the church is commonly seen as a human institution responsible for child abuse, homophobia and superstition, the spiritual seeker has to leap over a lot of obstacles to get to the truth of the Gospel.

We need to find an equivalent of the lecture hall of Tyrannus where the message of the Christ can be proclaimed. We do not need to fear that if the Good News is deconstructed by the unchurched it will be smashed like a mirror. Rather, the individual aspects of the truth can be studied one at a time, and, like a mosaic coming together, the glory of the Gospel can be revealed. There were many such steps in the conversion of CS Lewis. Among the first was the late-night suggestion by his friend JRR Tolkien that he pay some attention to the stories of Christ on the grounds that this might be a “true myth”.

The church in Paul's time were a people of paradoxes. They were welcoming but also vigilant. They were learning yet also proclaiming. They were spiritual infants but are the giants on whose shoulders we stand.

Our cities today have a lot more in common with the Ephesus Paul visited than Victorian Britain. This should be quite exciting because in such a place a diverse group of Christians were born who were passionately devoted to one another and who were used by God to reverberate his message of freedom across a land mass. Repentance freed them to let the extraordinary into their lives, and faith in Christ united them with a love literally out of this world.


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