Church: The Good

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What is Church?
Can you describe it? What are the defining attributes of church? Is it a specific place?
The truth is that ten people can be talking about “the church” and each of them referring to something different. I’ll share with you some big words I learned last semester in Theology Class.
  • Architectural – going TO “church”
    • The term “church” refers to a building…house of worship, temple, chapel, etc.
  • Doxological – having “church”, doing “church” – like when we have “church” at the park instead of here at the theater
    • refers to the act of worship or the presence of being in a place designated for worship…worship, mass, service, revival, etc.
  • Confessional – The Church proper (Roman Catholic, Easter Orthodox, Protestant)
    • used from the perspective of a confessional tradition, such as the Roman Catholic Church or Eastern Orthodox Church. Derives from the history and doctrine of that confession and cannot simply be applied to other traditions.
  • Institutional – My church: Reality Church
    • may be used from the perspective of a particular community, such as an independent church. The understanding of the term derives from the doctrine of that particular assembly and cannot simply be applied to other communities, assemblies, confessions, or traditions.
  • Denominational – Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, etc
    • used from the perspective of a particular denomination. The understanding of the term derives from the history and doctrine of that denomination and can often be applied to other denominations in the same tradition but not to other traditions.
  • Ecumenical – Church overall vs individual church bodies – Church vs. State
    • used from the perspective of the visibly divided churches and indicate either an invisible reality (the Church) or the multitude of separated “churches.” The terms are distinguished by upper or lower case spelling and difference in singular/plural connotation and are not interchangeable.
  • Universal – all Christians, Body of Christ
    • may be used from a universal perspective as the body of Christ or the people of God. The understanding of the term derives from the biblical imagery and cannot simply be applied to the reality of the visibly divided churches.
  • Religious Studies – What the “church” did wrong – how we speak of “the church” throughout history
    • may be used form the perspective of the religions as a designation of the Christian community in contrast to other religions. The understanding of the term derives from the history of religious divisions and often carries polemical or pejorative undertones.
So, you can see that this is a more difficult subject than would seem on the surface…
When speaking of the church, we need to be a little more specific about what “church” we are referring to.  I’ll come back to this later in this and the other talks of this series. Hope you took notes.
The Word: CHURCH
The Greek word commonly translated as “church” in the New Testament is “ekklesia” – which means assembly or gathering or congregation.
The first place we see this in the New Testament is in the controversial interchange between Jesus and Peter found in Matthew 16
Matthew 16:13-18
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.
18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (ekklesia), and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Verse 18 is what the Roman Catholics base their doctrine of the Pope on – claiming he is a a direct successor of Peter – the person on whom the church is built.  Protestants – which is what we are – believe Jesus was referring to his profession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah as the foundation of the church. That is a topic I will be unfolding more in next week’s talk.
Which church is Jesus referring to here? The institutional, doxological, ecumenical, universal? We’ll come back to that.
Our English word “church” comes originally from the Greek word “kyriakon” –
which was an adjective meaning “of the Lord” used to describe the houses of Christian worship in the third century.
This developed into the German word “kirche” which means “the Lord’s house”, specifically referring to a church building.
This further developed into the Old English “circe” and finally into our word “church” today.
The current definition in Webster’s dictionary has five meanings:
1. a building for public and especially Christian worship
2. the clergy or officialdom of a religious body
3. a body or organization of religious believers
4. a public divine worship – going to “church”
5. the clerical profession – “church” as a career
Kind of tracks with those theology terms I mentioned before, but I’d be willing to bet that most people who are not going to seminary think of church as a combination of the place you go, the people who are there, and what it is you do there. Now you know better. Feel free to download my notes this week and use those fancy words to impress your friends.  Next time you invite someone, say “How would you like to visit my institutional church? Our architectural church is in a movie theater and our doxology is different than most others. It doesn’t matter what denomination you subscribe to because we are all part of the universal church anyway.
I went through all of that because, one, it’s interesting (at least I think so) and two, as we consider this discussion about church, there will be times I need to be specific about what “church” I am referring to.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I want to go into a little history.
First, I want to say that the church that we see today – in all senses of the term – barely resembles what it was at the beginning.
The first Christian church that we see is in Acts. If you are unfamiliar with the story – Acts is the story of what happened after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Acts 1 begins with Jesus telling his disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit to come, then he is taken up in the clouds. A few days later, at the beginning of Acts 2 – they are all in the upper room of a house and are suddenly baptized in the Holy Spirit and begin speaking in foreign languages that others around them could understand. Peter gives a great speech and thousands are saved that day. Acts 2 ends with a short paragraph about what they did next as the newly established “ekklesia” – congregation of God.
Acts 2
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 favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
As I said, we don’t see much of this today. I’m not criticizing – just stating a fact. The truth is that we live in a very different world than those early Christians. This passage is what is called “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive” – meaning it is describing something that happened at that time, not necessarily prescribing what all believers should do from now on regardless of their circumstances.  We will come back to this passage again later, though, as there is much that we can learn from it.
If you think about it  – that church sounds rather nice. Everyone just hanging together, sharing everything in common, listening to the teachers (they didn’t have the New Testament yet), and just praising God.  So, what happened?
Persecution happened. The Jews, who thought the Jesus movement would end with his death, were not happy about how it it was spreading so they started arresting and even killing these new followers of “The Way” – led greatly by the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus – who we know today as Paul. This caused the church to scatter, forcing them to meet mostly in secret in people’s homes.  Then, of course, Saul had his conversion on the road to Damascus, and with his new name, Paul, proceeded to spread the church all over the Mediterranean – preaching to the Gentiles (the non-Jews).
This new spread into the ranks of the Gentiles caused another problem. At this time, most of the known world was under the rule of Rome, so these Gentiles were mostly members of Rome’s provinces. And Rome had it’s own deity – Caesar. They not only had all those cool Greek and Roman gods that make for interesting mythology – they also worshiped Caesar as, at least, a son of the gods. This new Christian faith would have been ok, except that they insist on only seeing their “Jesus” as God and not Caesar. This idea of only one God caused economic issues as well – as the Romans loved their statues and temples which made for a lot of jobs.  This resulted in persecution not only from the Jews but from Rome as well.
This further scattered the believers and put them into hiding. But the persecution did not stop the growth, in fact it sped it up as more and more churches were being planted by Paul and others. As that happened, a hierarchy started to form. Remember, they didn’’t have the New Testament like we do. They knew about Jesus from people retelling the stories that ended up in the Gospels, and then the occasional letter from Paul or Peter that got circulated. So, as we read in a few of Paul’s letters – elders were appointed to manage the different churches. It’s no longer just people spending time together and loving God – there is now a structure with a leader. This is not a bad thing in itself, but anytime you have people in leadership and left to their own devices – things have a way of going south. Power corrupts, right?
Anyway, fast forward a couple hundred years and the Christian faith is still growing despite the persecution. Now we have “Bishops” running the individual churches, and then the unthinkable happens: The Roman Emperor becomes a Christian.
Constantine.
The story goes that in 312 AD as Constantine was about to do battle against his co-emperor to take sole rule he had a vision. He saw in the heavens a vision of the cross arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, In Hoc Signo Vinces which means “with this sign, you will conquer”. He had all of his troops paint crosses (actually the Chi-Rho symbol, which is the first two letters in the Greek word for Christ) on their shields and went on to win the battle. After this, Constantine legalized Christianity which stopped the persecutions.  Throughout the remainder of his reign he supported the Church financially, built basilicas, granted privileges to clergy (certain tax exemptions which clergy still have today in America – thank you!), among other things. He also summoned the famous Council of Nicaea where the Nicene Creed came from. It was also during his reign that the bible that we use today – specifically the New Testament was mostly canonized.
Life was grand! What could be better than the Roman Emperor being a Christian – now the Christian faith was the religion of the state. What could go wrong? We all know that once the government gets hold of something it only gets better right?
But that part of the story I am saving for next week.
Right now, I want to go back  and take a look at why the early church could not only survive but thrive despite all the persecutions – and what it is we can learn from them that we can apply to our world today.  This early church, in my opinion, is the GOOD in our series subtitle.
Let’s go back to that passage in Acts 2:
Acts 2
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 favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
From this brief description, I can see several things that we can emulate today:
  • Devoted to the Apostles’ Teaching – for us today, that would equal studying our Bible, which is comprised of the Apostle’s teaching
  • Fellowship & Breaking Bread
    • They met together every day, and ate together in each other’s homes.
    • In other words, they did life together. They hung out together. They ate together and worshipped together. They prayed together.
  • They gave to those in need.
    • They actually sold their possessions and put them into a community pot to be used by all and given to the poor and needy.
    • That may not be very feasible for us today, but we can still support each other and give both our money and our time to those less fortunate than us.
  • They enjoyed the favor of all the people around them.
    • Why is that? Because of their love.
Jesus said this to his disciples shortly after he washed their feet and before he was arrested:
John 13
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
This is what the Apostles’ taught that the people listened to. What was Jesus’ church supposed to do?  Love.
Now, remember, that this word “love” is the Greek word “agape”, which is not a feelings based love. It is a love of action of self sacrificing. In other words, we are not called to LIKE everyone and feel lovey dovey feelings for them. We are called to ACT IN LOVE toward all people.
So when the Apostles taught…
They told of how Jesus said to even love your enemies.
 
That loving your neighbor sums up all of the law.
 
That we are to serve each other,
 
that we are to love even the least of these.
This is what defined the early church.  This is why they were favored by the people around them. They emulated the love of Christ.
Drastically different than the Roman world around them, human life was cheap. It wasn’t uncommon for families to throw infants out in the street to die if they didn’t want to keep it – or to kill off the marginalized. The Christians would rescue these orphans and care for the widows, and the sick – even if they were not Christians. During the plagues that ravaged Rome in the third century, it was the Christians who would risk infection caring for the sick.
They took Jesus’ teaching seriously, and the world would never be the same.  This is what Jesus meant when he said that “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
This is also what he meant by letting our light shine.
Matthew 5:16 – Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
The church is supposed to be a light in the darkness. A light of love for our fellow men and women.
I believe we need to bring back that spirit of the early church. We can do it right here in our church – Reality Church.
  • We can devote ourselves to God’s Word by reading it for ourselves, coming here to be taught, and meeting together to discuss it.
  • We can do life TOGETHER in authentic community – making a point to spend time with each other. Eating together. Praying together. Worshipping God together with our lives.
  • We can love others TOGETHER through community involvement. There are so many people right in our community who are in need. There are people in our congregation in need. Together we can make a difference by our love for each other and our love for others.
  • We could be a church that “enjoys the favor of all people” because of our love.
  • That is how the early church grew.
  • That is how the name of Jesus became famous.
  • That is how lives were changed despite the intense persecution and threat of death.
  • And that is how we, Christ’s modern ekklesia can rise above the gates of Hades in our day and time.
It is this side of the church that invented hospitals in the middle ages. It is this side of the church that developed what we know as Universities so that God’s word could be studied and taught. It is this side of Christianity that has been at the root of countless humanitarian efforts through the centuries.
Yes, there are plenty of bad and even ugly things that the church can be credited with, and we’ll talk about that in the next two weeks. But for this week,
can you see just how GOOD the church WAS –
how GOOD it was SUPPOSED TO BE –
and how GOOD it STILL CAN BE?
There’s one thing that the early church had loads of that the modern, at least American, church desperately lacks.
It’s called KOINONIA.
That is the Greek word translated as “fellowship”.
That is what the early church had.
If you remember a couple weeks ago when I told you that the vision of our church could be summed up in one word: TOGETHER
It’s KOINONIA – TOGETHER
The early church had it and they grew by the thousands. We are bringing it back.
If you were at the believers service where I shared my vision you might have recognized some of it in what I said just a moment ago about the early church, because that is where it comes from.
Like the early church, like the GOOD church, I believe we will see lives changed and we will see our community changed if we stick to these two principles.
Doing life together in authentic community.
Loving others together in community involvement.
Again, the key word is TOGETHER – KOINONIA – FAMILY.
But it’s going to take more than just me talking about it. Family (not relatives family) requires participation. It requires engagement.
I’m not suggesting that you sell all your possessions and give all the money to the church – like the early Christians did – but I am suggesting that if you want to be a part of this community, of this fellowship, of this family, of the koinonia and see the kind of life change that it can bring to YOU, much less others. Then you need to engage. Be here. Talk with people. Make connections. Participate.
If you’ve never been a part of this kind of family, where it centers around that agape kind of love, then you are truly missing out, and I urge you to take part.
Because REAL CHURCH IS NOT A PLACE THAT YOU GO.
The EKKLESIA that Jesus spoke of was so much more than an hour of singing and listening once a week. It was meant to be a FAMILY, it was meant to be a group of people who LOVED EACH OTHER DEEPLY – with that AGAPE kind of love. Because when we do that, we have something that the WORLD SIMPLY CANNOT REPLICATE: KOINONIA, FAMILY, AUTHENTIC COMMUNITY, TOGETHERNESS.
And when we do church this way, there’s no telling what kind of impact it can make on our neighborhood, our city, our country, and our world.
BY THIS THEY WILL KNOW THAT YOU ARE MY DISCIPLES – BY HOW YOU LOVE EACH OTHER.
AND THE LORD ADDED TO THEIR NUMBER DAILY THOSE WHO WERE BEING SAVED.
At this time, I’m going to ask the band to come back up.
There is a song that came out several months ago that the instant I first heard it made my heart burn inside of me. This song in so many ways speak exactly to what I’ve been talking about and what I believe our churches in America need. Pay attention to the words to this song. Sing along if you know it. You will be hearing it a lot more, as I want this song to be something of an anthem for Reality Church moving forward.
And why not start right now? I’m going to pray in a minute, and then after that we are going to have about ten minutes before the kids ministry is ready for pick up.