I don’t know what comes to mind when you think of church. Maybe you think of your parents pinching you during the sermon to get you to stop messing around and pay attention. Maybe it’s watching neighbors get up early on Sunday morning and going off to this thing called church.
Maybe church was a really bad experience for you; there were people in your church who disappointed you, or your spiritual mentor (in their own brokenness) failed you in some way, or you attended a church that continuously made you feel guilty because they didn’t preach the gospel of grace.
Or maybe you’re like me; you grew up in church and you’ve always loved church.
No matter what comes to mind, the challenge for us is to think of church the way it began, because it wasn’t so much a location with a hierarchal structure focusing on attracting a crowd with programs as we have come to know it but rather, the church was a movement. A movement that was launched around an event in history; the resurrection of Jesus.
So, what we’ve been doing in this sermon series is looking at what it means to be the church, using the book of Acts as our guide.
Let’s quickly recap before we jump in to our text . . .
The word that is translated “church” in your bible, is the Greek word, Ekklesia. It literally means “an assembly or gathering”.
So, when Jesus launched the church, he launched it around one simple idea; to gather.
Not long after Jesus was crucified. He rose from the dead and spent about forty days with his followers. On one of those days, he gathered them on a hillside and gave them his final instructions and it’s here that Jesus predicts the beginning of the church.
He tells them that they will receive power from the Holy Spirit and that with this power, they will become witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
In other words, this movement, this gathering, was going to be multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and it was going to be accomplished through the power of God’s Spirit.
About two weeks later . . . the city of Jerusalem was jam packed with people from all over the world celebrating the Jewish holiday; Shavuot – or we have come to know it, Pentecost.
When Peter saw all these people, from all over the world, he stood up and preached his first sermon.
This was opening day of the church and about three thousand people embraced this idea that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that had risen from the dead. A couple of weeks later, Peter preached in the temple and two thousand more believed.
And suddenly, this movement, this gathering, was gaining traction.
The problem was, there was a very sensitive balance of power between Rome and the Jewish authorities and it was important to keep the peace between the two, because Rome had the authority and power to shut down the temple; the epicenter of Jewish activity.
This Jesus movement was beginning to disrupt the balance.
So, to stop this movement and restore the balance, persecution broke out. The religious leaders dragged off the apostles and brought them in before the Sanhedrin who warned them to stop talking about Jesus and to make their point, the apostles were beaten with whips within an inch of their lives.
But listen to their response . . . “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing!”
The founders of this Jesus movement said, “Are you kidding me? To have suffered, to be disfigured because of the name of Jesus . . . it’s the thing I’m most proud of. He gave his life for me, all I did is give up the skin on my back for him.”
That’s how they thought and from that day forward they never stopped teaching and preaching and proclaiming the good news of Jesus. And the church continued to grow and grow and grow.
It grew so big that they had to develop some structure to the local church and other leaders surfaced and took on responsibility, and one of those leaders was a man named Stephen.
Stephen spoke boldly about his faith but because he wasn’t one of the apostles, the Jewish leaders thought they could take advantage of the situation, and they had him arrested.
They paid people to say things about Stephen that weren’t true and at the end of their charges, Stephen gives a defense, and his defense takes his Jewish audience from the Old Testament all the way through current times to explain that Jesus is in fact, the Messiah.
Well, it doesn’t go over well. They dragged him outside the city and stoned him to death. This was the beginning of widespread persecution of those who were a part of this movement.
What happens next is introduced in sort of an ironic, foreshadowing, and prophecy fulfilling kind of way. Luke 8 begins . . . “And Saul was there giving approval of his death”
Saul is the guy who we know of as Paul and would eventually make the biggest impact in this movement but here, Saul had a difference mission; to put an end to this movement once and for all.
For three years, he was a one-man wrecking machine going from house to house arresting, torturing, and killing Christians. The reason he went from house to house is because that’s where Christians met.
But as he persecuted the church, the church continued to spread. Basically, he would kick over the anthill, and the ants would scatter. Our text says that they were scatted throughout Judea and Samaria.
In other words, Saul’s persecution becomes the fulfillment of Jesus’s words that this movement, this gathering, was going to spread throughout the world.
After three years of kicking over anthills, he decides to take it to the next level and goes to the high priest to get official paperwork giving him authority to continue his mission in Damascus. I guess he wants to be given a badge he can flash as he continues his work of ending this movement.
As he’s on his way to Damascus, a light from heaven flashed around him and he fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Let’s pause here . . . Shouldn’t the voice be saying, Saul why do you persecute the church? Why are you arresting, torturing, and killing those people, those pastors, and those leaders?
Saul was probably thinking the same thing as he asks, “Who are you?”
The voice replied, “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting”.
This is important because what Jesus has just said to Paul is what you do to my people, you do to me.
Do you know what that means for us? You’ve heard me say it many times . . . We, the church, are the representatives of Jesus on earth. Not individually, because you’re not that good, but collectively. Collectively, we are the hands, the feet, and the mouthpiece of Jesus.
The story continues . . . Saul realizes that he’s been blinded by the light, so Jesus tells him to go to the city of Damascus and wait. He stood up, and the people around him took him by the arm and led him to Damascus and for three days he sat in someone’s house without being able to see, and he just prayed.
Meanwhile, there’s another guy in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision and told him to go find Saul. Ananias is thinking, “Um, I’m pretty sure he’s looking for me, so he can arrest, torture and eventually kill me, so I’m not so sure it’s a good idea for me to be looking for him.”
This is where the story gets really-rich.
The Lord said, “Go, this man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles.”
This was not only a Jewish message. This was not something just for those who grew under Jewish law and were looking for a Messiah. This was for the entire world. And God chooses the most unlikely candidate to be the mouthpiece of the gospel to the Gentiles.
So, Ananias agrees, and he goes and finds Saul and he lays his hands on him and something like scales fell off his eyes, and he was able to see again, and then they prayed together.
Ananias explained to Saul that God has given him a unique opportunity to take this message to the entire world. But that he will also suffer in the same way as the Christians he has persecuted.
Then, for nearly 15 years Saul essentially disappears in order to get an education. He began to study and learn and spend time with Jesus’ followers – many of whom had actually spent time with Jesus - just to absorb all he could about the life and teachings of Jesus.
Then after this time of preparation, he launched out on what we term Paul’s missionary journeys. For the next ten or so years, he traveled throughout the known world, stopping in cities along the way and planting little Ecclesia’s, little churches, little gatherings.
Meanwhile, the apostles are huddled together in Jerusalem just trying to get one church right. It’s as if he said to the apostles, “You guys take Jerusalem; I’ve got the rest of the world.”
Then in the year 58, he was arrested in Jerusalem, and taken to Caesarea where he was kept in jail for two years. While in jail, he told them he was a Roman citizen and that he wanted to be tried in Rome.
So, they send him on the long journey to Rome where he is put under house arrest for two more years. While under house arrest, he wrote many of the letters that we are familiar with. These letters were written to those churches – those ecclesia’s, those gatherings, that he had planted along his journey’s.
After two years in Rome, he was released. But then he was re-arrested in the year 66 and spent another year and half in prison, this time in a real dungeon in Rome while Nero was Emperor. If you know anything about Nero and his relationship with Christians . . . you know that he makes Saul’s persecution of Christians look like the work of an amateur. It’s like the difference between WWE and MMA.
Then in the year 67, probably early one morning, Paul’s prison doors were opened, guards took him out silently, and walked him outside the city, and very quickly Paul knew where they were headed, because it was the part of the city where executions were often held.
Without any ceremony, with no eyewitnesses, and no one knows exactly where the spot is, he was beheaded. But although his life ended on that day, the impact of his life had really just begun.
Because of Paul’s boldness, and willingness to get on the boat over and over and travel from city to city throughout the entire known world despite the risk, the message of Jesus has been carried on to us, here in this place, in our little Ecclesia, our little gathering.
But in addition to being a missionary, there was something else that Paul did that was extraordinarily important. Because he was a Roman citizen, he had access to something that some of his brothers and sisters in Jerusalem did not have access to . . . education.
And because of his education, he was able to extrapolate from Christian Judaism what needed to be transferred to the Gentile world. In fact, he continually got into trouble, as we’ll see next week, with the Jews in Jerusalem because he had a Gentile version of Christianity.
But the thing God raised him up to do was to help those of us who don’t have an Old Testament background, and who weren’t looking for the Messiah, to understand what the essence of the gospel is.
And over and over, Paul would go into the Gentile regions and say, “Even if you are not Jewish, even if you’ve never read one word of the Old Testament, here’s the thing you have to understand. Here’s the take away. Here’s the bottom line.”
In 1 Corinthians, he gives us the synopsis of this message, the takeaway, the bottom line, the thing you can’t ignore, for all of us who are Gentiles.
It’s four simple statements; Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he was raised, and he appeared.
Sure, you may have a lot of questions and you don’t really understand scripture and sometimes it feels like everybody else is where they need to be in the bible but can’t even find yours but Paul is saying, “Ok, I get it, it took me 15 years of studying but here’s the thing you just can’t ever lose sight of; Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he was raised, and he appeared.”
That’s it. That’s the starting point. That’s the gospel. That’s not the point you get to after you’ve got all your questions answered. That’s the thing you wrestle with.
If you want to wrestle with whether Christianity is true, don’t look at Christians who disappoint you, don’t attend a church that makes you feel guilty and doesn’t preach the gospel of grace, and don’t look to the fact that your spiritual mentor in their own brokenness failed you in some way.
Paul says, all that stuff is a distraction. If you’re going to wrestle with Christianity, if you are going to wrestle with the truth of the gospel, wrestle with this one thing; Did Christ die for your sins, was he buried, was he raised from the dead, and was he seen?
That’s the starting point. That’s the stopping point. That’s the gospel. That’s the foundation. That’s what it’s all about.