Saturday Apr 18, 2015

The Big Story - Part 9


Big Story - Act 5 Scene 1: The Early Church

with Roger Kirby

The story is not finished. We are ourselves part of it. Mark begins his Gospel by calling it the “beginning of the Gospel” perhaps hinting that there was a lot more to come after he had finished writing. If so we are part of the continuation of the Gospel. The first 20 chapters of the book we call the Acts of the Apostles are devoted to 3 main themes: the giving of the Holy Spirit to all the followers of Jesus; the understanding that the Christian Way is open to all: Jews and Gentiles; and the spread of the Good News round all the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. All these are very important for us. The remaining 8 chapters of the book are concerned with various legal arguments surrounding Paul and his work. These were important to Luke writing to encourage his patron, Theophilus, to follow the Way but are far less important for us.

First then: the gift of the Holy Spirit. You are probably familiar with the way in which the Spirit was initially given to the 120 immediate followers and companions of Jesus. In Jerusalem this, and the subsequent occasions when the Spirit was given, was followed immediately by the gift of Baptism, thus closely associating the two events. Only when Philip went to Samaria, an area of people despised by the Jews of Jerusalem, and they were converted and received the gift of the Spirit did the Jewish leaders begin to realize that the gift was going to be given to Gentiles as well as Jews and that therefore they were going to have to be baptized as well. The situation was formalized through the experiences of Peter with Cornelius, not without some vocal opposition.

The problem was that a nearly impenetrable wall had been built around Judaism so as to define it as the only people of God. This wall had 3 elements: circumcision, the food laws and Sabbath keeping. Some, perhaps many, of the believing Jews in Jerusalem wanted to insist that Christian converts had to keep within that wall. But the Holy Spirit was clearly not confined by the wall. We can summarize the situation by inserting the ‘wall’ into what Paul said in Romans 3: “God demonstrated his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. … For we maintain that a person is justified by faith even outside the wall.” Which then becomes very similar to what Paul said in Ephesians 2: “For he himself has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”

In tracing through the way in which people were given the gift of the Holy Spirit we see that the Christian Way is open to all, Jew and non-Jew alike - which is just as well for us as probably most of you who hear or read this will not be Jews!

An important but usually overlooked episode in the life of the early church is the time Paul spent in Arabia that he mentions in Galatians 1. We may reasonably guess that he spent his time there in a Jewish seminary which had a complete set of what we call the Old Testament scrolls and gave himself a PhD course in ‘The significance of Jesus in Old Testament prophecy.’ When he had finished he had worked out a complete theology of the meaning of all that had happened since the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist in Galilee. Unfortunately we never get to read his complete thesis but only the snippets that were appropriate in the letters he wrote reacting to specific situations in the young churches. A naturally dynamic person, energized by his studies, Paul embarked on his amazing life work of spreading the Good News and planting churches throughout what are now Syria, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Rome. What a man! What a gift! What a Holy Spirit!

So what?

None of us have more than a tiny fraction of the intellect and dynamism of Paul but we do all have the same Holy Spirit within us that he had. Our problem, therefore, is to determine which fraction is ours. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 12: 4–10 : “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.” And as Paul did not say but would have done had he lived today: to another gifts of music to lead worship, to another the gift of letter writing to Christians in danger or difficulty, to another the gift of teaching children to love the Lord, to another the gift of helpful visiting, to another the gift of using modern communications to transmit the Good News and so on. Then he would have said as indeed he did in verse 11: “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.”

And what about you? What is your particular gift? Think about it; pray about it, use it.

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