We had a wonderful celebration last Sunday remembering our 50 years of gathering at Courts of Praise. Barry McGaffin gave a significant message to us at Courts about maintaining a simple approach to church; not simplistic or naive but that of genuine sincerity as well follow God’s ways. Even though we are celebrating 50 years of serving God and touching the lives of people, we must hold to a mindset that we are beginners and students in God’s Kingdom. Steve Falkiner helped us to consider the importance of remembering the good things of the past, and learning from the challenges and trusting God for the future. As I sat and listened I was encouraged in my spirit to move forward in God and challenged in my faith for the future.
In light of Barry’s and Steve’s messages I found myself considering the “church” and the Book of Acts. Over the next few weeks we will walk through Acts and discover the church. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of church? Lets be honest… Some of us may think of the building… or maybe the Sunday service… or the programs… or people who gather to study the Bible… or maybe church is seen as being religious… Whether these thoughts are positive or negative, it is my hope over the next number of weeks to help us discover the sincere church that Barry McGaffin spoke of…
My introduction to the church
I did not grow up in the “church” and only entered the doors of a “church” three times prior to becoming a follower of Jesus, once for a wedding, once for a funeral and once for a Saturday evening service where I heckled the preacher while very intoxicated, not one of my better moments. When I travelled through Europe in 1980 I marvelled at the “churches” I visited and saw them more like museums than places of spirituality. On Jan 25th 1981 I offered a prayer to God, “If you are real, then please forgive me for I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life.” In an act of great mercy and love God revealed himself to me and my life has never been the same. In that moment of salvation I felt forgiven and free, however, I still did not understand the basics of Christianity let alone the meaning of the church. I moved into a Dilaram House with Youth With A Mission and began to grow in my faith. The believers gave me a Bible and taught me how to study and pray and share my faith. It was a glorious time.
I remember reading in Matt 16:13-20 about Jesus asking the disciples “who do the people say the Son of Man is” followed by Peter’s confession of Christ - “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds by saying, “upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” This was the first place in the Scriptures that I came across the “church”. So began my study into the nature and life of the church. Here are a few things I discovered:
- The word for church in the Greek language is “Ekklesia” and it means assembly or gathering and is used over 100 times in the Bible. This assembly of believers is both Old and New Testament.
- The House of God, the place where God dwells, is directly connected to the ekklesia…
- The Holy Spirit gave birth to the church and dwells in the church…
- Jesus Christ is the head of the church - “And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy (Col 1:18).
A Brief lesson in “Church” History
The early believers in book of Acts assembled together or congregated as followers of Jesus. They gathered together in homes, marketplaces, outdoors or in some cases synagogues and focused around the message of the resurrection of Jesus, this was ekklesia moving and active. There were no organized youth trips, programs for this or that; it was a simple and sincere gathering of saints telling stories of Jesus Christ; his life, death, resurrection and ascension. These followers of the “way” suffered severe persecution which resulted in the scattering of the saints in the known world. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, they continued to gather in homes but they also began to have “larger” meetings together. It was during this period ofa new word was introduced with German roots - “Kirche” which means “belonging to the house of the Lord.” Over time Kirche became Church in the English language and the emphasis was placed on the “Lord’s House”, not on the assembling or gathering or movement of believers. This unfortunate linguistic shift moved the understanding of God’s followers from a “moving experience” to one of location. Now the church was believed to be seen in a building, kind of like the temple in the Old Testament, and not in the ekklesia (assembling) of the saints. This meant that whoever owned or controlled the building was in charge of the church, they alone were responsible for the Scriptures, and in time controlled governments. This led the “Kirche” into the dark ages.
It was in the 1500’s that things began to change in the “Kirche”. I am sure we have heard of the Reformation, Martin Luther being the most well known name in that time. William Tyndale was a British theologian who had a vision to get the Scriptures into the hands of everyday believers, the ekklesia. Up to this point the Scriptures were controlled by the “Kirche” and the idea of the Scriptures being turned over to the “ekklesia” was strongly opposed. Tyndale eventually fled to Germany where his New Testament translation was produced on the Gutenberg Press. In 1536, after a year of imprisonment, he was executed and then burned at the stake. This was the beginning of the ekklesia being restored after centuries of oppression. The institutional “Kirche” began to loose control and the true “ekklesia” began to be renewed; in the Tyndale New Testament he translated ekklesia as the “congregation”. We are part of this reformation today.
However, I believe we are living in days where there is a new reformation, so to speak. Just like Steve Falkiner spoke of with regards to rediscovering our first love. Not a love for church, which has to some degree become denominational or you could say institutional. Not a love for ministry. But a renewed love for Jesus. In today’s contemporary expression of Christianity we must be careful that we do not lose sight of the “assembling” of the saints as the ekklesia. Many denominations today offer programs and events, concerts and conferences which are more often than not focused around the church building for the sake of church ministry. And when we participate we feel like we’ve been to church. One of the greatest challenges facing the “ekklesia” today is that of the commercialization of the church. This can be a dangerous distortion of God’s true design for the ekklesia, which is to be a place where believers can love God and another and tell the story of Jesus Christ. I am reminded of Barry McGaffin’s statement to keep the church simple and sincere as we follow Jesus Christ.
My hope today is to help us to rethink church and to rediscover it at an emotional level. Let’s turn to the Book of Acts and remind ourselves of the beginning of the “ekklesia”. The church began as a movement of believers engaging in the life of Jesus and it is still moving today.
After Jesus’ resurrection we are told that “he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). During these 40 days the apostles assembled to hear from Jesus, along with a few friends and family members; we know from Scripture that there was only about 120 people. The are two key statements that Jesus makes during this post resurrection encounter.
- “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4–5).
- But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
This gathering of believers - the ekklesia - was to be a movement, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and to go to the ends of the earth. They would be witnesses or testifiers of their experiences with Jesus. I can imagine the apostles thinking regarding this prophetic statements by Jesus. Jerusalem is probably doable… Judea, well, that’s pushing it… Samaria, no way… The ends of the earth, impossible… How could we ever make such an impact? After Jesus’ Ascension, we know that this ragtag group of believers gathered together to pray and to add another apostle, Matthias to the group, a replacement for Judas.
The 120 saints who were gathered on the Day of Pentecost experienced the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This was the birth of the “ekklesia” and they were not to settle down in Jerusalem as the “kirche” but to move, to go, to make disciples, to evangelize, to baptize, to share the good news that Jesus was alive. We know that Peter preached a convicting message about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The people responded by asking what they must do to be saved. Peter replied, “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. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39).
Three thousand were added to the “ekklesia” not the “kirche” or a location per se. For a number of days there were baptisms taking place all throughout Jerusalem and area. Many of these new members found their way back to their own towns and countries and gathered the people to give witness or testimony to their experience. The resurrection was the main message of the early believers. This was the beginning of the “ekklesia” moving forward to the ends of the earth.
The early believers were filled with a tremendous sense of God’s presence, whether is was Jesus preaching before his Ascension or the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and without a doubt they were on the move. This movement continues to this day as believers gather to share about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and how this has impacted their lives.
The “church” is much more than a building or a given location. In Acts 1 & 2 the church had no building, liturgy or ushers. What it did have was a gathering of Holy Spirit empowered people who were intent on one thing: to testify of Jesus Christ and add people to the “ekklesia”. The early church was a movement of multi-cultural people who believed that Jesus was the Saviour.
I hope that we can take joy and encouragement is this truth, we are a part of this momentous movement of believers. A when two or three or more gather in Jesus’ name we are the church, the ekklesia. One point of clarification to state here is that having a facility of some sort is required in the context of the saints gathering together; the larger the gathering the larger the facility that is needed. My hope is to help us understand the biblical origin of the ekklesia as the gathering of believers.
I am reminded of our mission statement here at Courts of Praise - “We are becoming a grace-full, loving, accepting and forgiving community of believers from all nations that celebrate each other and who are committed to bringing souls into God’s kingdom.” Our desire is to be a part of the “ekklesia” that brings honour and praise to God while intentionally looking for opportunities to share our faith in Jesus.
- We are becoming is foundational - grace and love and acceptance and forgiveness are to be put into practice. This is the experience of believers gathering together. It is any but perfect, but requires commitment on our parts to be genuine and growing in our love for God and each other.
- The multi-cultural aspect of the ekklesia is something to be celebrated. In the early church they wrestled with us and them, Jews and Gentiles, etc. However, on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 racism took the back seat as the ekklesia was empowered to give praise to God. How does this apply to us today? We need the empowering of the Holy Spirit to fill us with praise towards God and love towards people.
- Lastly, I believe God is looking for movers and shakers, so to speak, that will create opportunity to move the church forward. What does this look like? Making the most of those divine appointments to share our faith. Making ourselves available to share about Jesus. This can take place in the church facility or where God leads you. The key is to share one’s faith about Jesus.