Starting with a blank sheet of paper
It’s Monday and the sun is out.
I decided literally to start with a blank sheet of paper, sitting in the garden, pondering what to write about.
Well, there’s a few words already!
Actually, what came to mind was: what if we restarted church with a blank piece of paper?
Now, I realise that we don’t start from nowhere – at CCVW we have had a century and a half of evangelical ministry! And more recently, as the think about our slow return to Church, we are not starting from nothing. The complicated questions we wrestle with are: should we do that we did before, and what might we now do differently, all within the constraints of a post-covid world?!
But humour me for a moment, what if we were starting from scratch? After all, with Pentecost Sunday just a few weeks away, that first outpouring of the Holy Spirit created a group of people who came to be known as the Church. Ekklesia (from which we get all words ecclesiastical) just meant “assembly” or “called-out-ones” and didn’t initially refer to Church. But the 114 times the word is used in the New Testament refer to the gathering of Christians for corporate worship, locally, and as a global movement.
Building a Church from bottom up
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47).
The key components of this first Church were:
- Learning – devotion to the apostles teaching. Yes, this implies sermons, but also, Connect groups and all other forms of being nurtured and formed by God’s word.
- Loving – Christian fellowship is sharing the common life which we have in Christ, and generously meeting the needs of one another in Christian community. There are still some restrictions in place, but we are getting ready to start serving coffee outside, under canopies and marquee as necessary.
- Worshipping – breaking bread, prayer, in public and in private. We have missed it this past year, but we are now celebrating Holy Communion across all three of our Sunday services (1st Sunday of the month, 08:30; 3rd Sunday, 18:30; Last Sunday: 10:30). Prayer works quite well across zoom – and we might well include this as part of our normal pattern of prayer, but our relaunched Sunday evening service (9th May) will include a time of “open prayer” and “sharing” in the context of a more informal meeting. Singing outside on Easter Sunday was great – maybe we can do a bit more of this?
- Witnessing – The Lord added daily to their number those who were being saved. I think that there has been a lot of cross fertilisation of churches going on during lockdown! Online church has made it easier for people to drop in on other churches, and I know that we have seen people both leave and arrive during this time. But the key thing for churches is not transfer growth, but new growth. We are eager to prepare well during this year for Passion for Life, the evangelistic endeavours planned for Easter next year. Plus, as lockdown begins to ease, to get into Longcross, visiting house to house, and starting some gatherings in the community hub.
John Stott, in his commentary on Acts, points out that a Spirit filled Church is the most missionary active Church!
The Holy Spirit did come on the Day of Pentecost, and has never left his Church. Our responsibility is to humble ourselves before his sovereign authority, to determine not to quench him, but to allow him his freedom. For then our churches will again manifest those marks of the Spirit’s presence, which many young people are specially looking for, namely biblical teaching, loving fellowship, living worship, and an ongoing, outgoing evangelism.
A congregation member rightly asked me whether it should not all begin with the climax of Peter’s sermon: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Acts 2:38 demonstrates that it all starts with an individual responsive faith – repentance, faith, and infilling of the Holy Spirit ….
The focus by the end of chapter 2 is very much on “what did that early church look like – those individuals who have just been filled with the spirit” – hence v42ff. then show the communal life of believers in a primitive church.
The personal and the corporate both belong together.