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Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Early Church

            Followers of Jesus experienced life altering changes immediately after the resurrection.  We say we believe in God, believe in resurrection, and eternal life, and we mean it.  As much as we can, considering we’re talking about things that are really outside our experience and beyond our comprehension, we mean when we declare our faith in Jesus as God incarnate, our Lord and our Savior.
How would our belief be affected if a resurrected person walked into the room?  If someone we know is dead, saw in the coffin at the funeral home, and saw buried at the cemetery walked in right now, some of us would be pretty freaked out. 
            That’s what happened.  The appearance of Jesus after the crucifixion was mind-blowing.  Not only did meeting the risen Christ change the perceptions of reality held by the earliest believers, meeting the resurrected one altered their ideas about themselves, and about the world around them.  It also changed the way they understood the things they had previously heard Jesus say. 
            Just about all of the original followers of Jesus were Jews and in following Jesus, they imagined themselves continuing to live the story of God and God’s chosen people that had begun with Adam and creation and then continued with Abraham and the calling out of a chosen people.  After Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that story continued with Exodus, and Moses, and the law, the Torah.  From Moses, this story moved to the greatest of leaders, King David, and then from David and his son, King Solomon, to the lowest of shames, exile. 
Peter and John and the rest of the disciples believed Israel was still in exile, and Jesus had come to begin a new age, one in which Israel would be free of foreign influence and able to worship God and live life in freedom and peace in the Promised Land.  They believed Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and dreams.  Jesus was the climax of the story.
            They were right, but they didn’t understand what all that meant.  They didn’t realize that he was God, that he would defeat death and appear to them, and that after they saw him a new movement would begin.  Each new discovery gave birth to another.  Before they had a chance to fully comprehend the resurrection, they saw Jesus ascend to Heaven to sit at God’s right hand.  Before they could adjust to him being gone, the Holy Spirit came and filled each of Jesus’ followers.  They didn’t know what church was.  God dramatically invaded, the Holy Spirit burned in them, and they who had not understood now became the community that formed the first church. 
            The coming of the Spirit and the gathering of Jesus’ followers into this new thing – church – helped make sense of something Jesus said.  After he was raised but before he ascended to heaven, he told them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has coming upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  That last phrase was confusing.   Jerusalem, Judea, and even Samaria made sense.  These were Jewish lands.  But what was this about testifying to Jesus to the “ends of the earth?”  They thought the story of God and Israel reached its climax in the land of Israel with God as king.  Jesus turned that idea on its head.  The story did not reach its fulfillment with a gathering, but with a sending.  Salvation would go beyond Israel. 
Furthermore, Torah was no longer the sign of salvation because Torah had been achieved in the coming, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus.  Baptism, not circumcision, was now the sign of the community of believers.  The church was the gathering of the Jesus-followers, and the church was the base of operations for the mission to announce rescue to the entire world.  What they thought would happen actually happened.  God acted to save Israel and the world.  How it came about caught them all by surprise. 
As we arrive at the end of Acts chapter 4, we find ourselves with a group of people stepping into an uncertain, unexpected future, and they couldn’t be happier about it.  Our reading for today, verses 32-37 talks of the people being full of awe and wonder as they saw the things God was doing through normal individuals, fishermen and tax collectors, the first church leaders.  They were praising God continuously.  They were full of goodwill for everyone.  And daily, people were coming to awareness that in Jesus, we are saved: saved from sin and death, and saved for a life of relationships, a life of meaning, and a life of full, real joy.
            Change can throw people for a loop, but this group of the original Christians thrived in this time of rapid change.  We can look to them as our church has changes ahead. 
            Of course some things are established.  Jesus has been raised.  We know that.  That truth is the ground on which we stand.  He has risen, ascended to the Father, and his Holy Spirit has come and is here.  These basic truths hold us together just as they do for churches all over; churches we’ve visted in Ethiopia; churches we know of in Quebec and Dominican Republic; our CBF neighbors up the road, Mount Carmel Baptist Church; megachurches like Saddleback in California and the church of celebrities, Hillsong-Manhatten.  All Christians are upheld by the saving love of Jesus and his resurrection.
            For us, what’s new?  In a sense, that cannot be easily answered because what is ahead is a search.  We’re examining our church’s identity.  Every church has its own personality and we’re taking a long, hard look at ours.  We’re going to spend the rest of this year praying for renewal. 
            One of my own specific prayers is that God will show us the changes we need to make to become a more diverse community.  I dream of a day when I walk here on a Sunday morning and I see so many from so many different backgrounds that it is impossible to know which group has the most.  Asian, black, white, Hispanic, Arabic, Native American; all believers together in the name of Jesus, praising Him and loving each other; that’s my dream for HillSong. 
We’re leaning toward that dream.  We have some diversity even now.  We have a Karen church that shares space and many in the Karen community often worship in this, our 11AM English service.  A Spanish congregation worships here on Sunday afternoons and their pastor and many of their members are in our English service every week.  We have as a part of this English church people from many different backgrounds.  Next week we will vote on partnering with a Chinese church-start. 
All of this points to the direction of our church.  Acts 4:30 says many signs were being done by the apostles.  Here, the elders, deacons and membership’s willingness to lovingly welcome different people into HillSong and to entertain the new ideas the pastoral staff has presented is, to me, a sign that we are trying to hear God’s voice.  We are prayerfully attempting to answer God’s call on us. 
Another aspect of the renewal process is that I, the senior pastor, will begin a 4-month Sabbatical on May 7.  For 4 months, I’ll be away from the church.  The church will be in great hands.  Of course Heather will be the lead pastor and Enam will continue her great work with the youth ministry.  Pending next week’s vote, we will introduce Holly Holder as our ministry intern, doing a lot of the things Heather normally does.  And we’ll introduce Hong Zhou as the leader of the Chinese church plant.  She will also be part of the church staff.  So the church staff will be Heather, Enam, Holly, and Hong.
Additionally, Dina Sit will oversee day-to-day operations just as she always has, and there will be tremendous experience and institutional knowledge in the deacon and elder chairpersons, Todd Baker and Susan Dunn.  So leadership in our church will carry on without much of a stumble.
However, I have been the pastor for almost 11 years.  For better or for worse, you’re used to seeing me in this spot on Sundays.  I am used to constructing my life around Sundays and not just any Sunday, but Sunday at HillSong Church in Chapel Hill.  It’s going to be weird for a while.  But, we have to keep this in mind.  All of this is coming about because the pastors and the elders went through a lengthy prayer process, and I’m going on Sabbatical and we’re going through renewal because this is where God led us.  When this process began, Enam was not yet on the church staff, Holly had only been to HillSong a few times, and Hong was still and an MDiv student at Duke Divinity School.  God has been preparing us for this all along the way.  God has brought us to this point.
We move forward in joy trusting that God will provide all that we need.  Stepping forward in faith, we take to the journey relying on God.  By this time next year, we will see ourselves in many ways as a new church, a church God has planted.  This is what those early believers we meet in Act 4 did.  They stepped forward.  The stepped into uncertainty, but they stepped in faith and they were full of joy. 
Four ideas defined this early church.  First, they were unified.  Verse 32 says those who believed were of one heart and soul.  I believe this is true of our church.  We know people in our church family have many ideas exist and sometimes we have ideological differences, but for us this is a very positive thing.  Our diversity of ideas gives our church intellectual depth.  And we know that we have in common our identity in Christ and the life that the resurrection gives us.  We believe in that together and, like the early church, are completely united in faith.
Second, that first church moved the meter.  It says in verse 33, “with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection.”  There is power in our witness.  Talk to people who were part of our church and had to move to other cities.  They still hold onto the way God shaped them while they were in this church family.  Talk to people who moved away from here and then came back.  When they returned to the area, they returned to HillSong because they believed they would grow in Christ and be able to serve here.  The Lord is present in the Holy Spirit and when the Spirit is present, there is power.
Third, also in verse 33, it says, “great grace was upon them all.”  If we are going to be a safe community where people of all backgrounds can come, be welcomed, and meet God, then grace has to be one of our defining characteristics.  You have certainly shown me tremendous grace.  I pray you will pass that on to the other pastors and staff members.  Heather, Enam, Hong, Holly, and Dina will all need to know the congregation has their back and will walk with them through the challenging moments. 
Fourth, Acts says the congregation of the first church was characterized by generosity.  This goes along with grace.  They shared with one another.  Yes, some of that was material and monetary support, but this also means generosity of spirit.  They shared their hearts with each other.  I urge HillSong to be devoted this summer to being generous with love.  Give compliments and encouraging words.  Give lots of hugs.  It’s something that is an enormous blessing, and you don’t run out of them.  You can 100 and have 100’s more to give. 
Before the church even knew what it was or what church is, the church was rich in unity, power, grace, and generosity.  This is all because of Jesus’ coming, death, and resurrection, and because of the coming of the Holy Spirit.  As we said before, the Holy Spirit that was with the early church is here too.  We are drawn together as a family, as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Today we will finish our time of worship with worship singing and then with communion.  As we take the bread – the body of Christ, and the cup – the blood of the new Covenant, have confidence.  God’s promises can be trusted.  This summer there will inevitably be moments where no one is quite sure what to do because the next things is something I have come to do by habit and I won’t be there.  It might be in a worship service, it might around the office, or in some ministry situation in the community.  When that moment comes, don’t worry about it and don’t try to do what I would do.  Follow the Holy Spirit’s lead.   Whatever the situation is will turn out wonderfully because we are people joined together in Christ, following the Spirit together. 
That’s what church is.  Renewal and new visions are just part of it.  We are a people united in Christ, following the lead of the Spirit together. 


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