On That Day....
Updated: Jan 4
We’ve just come out of the season celebrating “Advent” – the time right before Christmas when we reflect on and rejoice over the arrival of Jesus, the Son of God, to our planet. If you really think about it, this is an absurd and mind-boggling claim – that the God who created all of this and all of us also took the time to be a part of all of this and all of us. He joined us in our daily march into disappointment, joy, suffering, love, and all else life has to give.
The notion that God did this is life-altering if you believe it’s true, which I do, and if it is real it can certainly be nothing less than the climax of all of human history.
But for those of us who would call ourselves the “people of God,” as believers in and followers of Jesus, there is another turning point in history.
Those who know me know I consider the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 as a “defining moment” in the history of God’s people, and it is. Without that meeting, and the courage of Paul, Peter, and James to advocate for the authenticity of the Gentiles’ faith while among the Jerusalem Christians, the church would not have grown like it did, world history would certainly have not turned out the same, and many of us would not be here today.
Acts 15 was certainly a defining moment – a point in time at which the future is fundamentally changed. But a “turning point” is an altogether different thing. And as foundational as Acts 15 is to all that comes afterward, it is not the “turning point” for the new collection of the people of God, now called the church.
That time would come a few chapters beforehand, in Acts chapter 8. Just prior to this chapter, the Jesus follower named Stephen was brought before the Jewish ruling council of the day, the Sanhedrin. He was asked to give account for his actions as a peddler of this message about Jesus, and he gave a summary of the Scriptures showing how they led to Jesus followed by a scathing rebuke of those gathered who had resisted this good news. This led to the furious crowd grabbing Stephen and dragging him to the outskirts of town to stone him to death… as the man we would come to know as Paul watched.
If you stop reading there, it’s a harrowing point. As a movie or book series, this would be the end of part one – the cliffhanger leaving you in wonder about how in the world are they going to get out of this one.
And it leads us to the turning point in all of Church history.
Acts chapter 8 verse 1 states, “On that day, a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria…,” verse 4 continues, “those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.”
Everything we know, love, cherish, and identify with in the rest of the New Testament comes because of what happens in Acts Chapter 8. In fact, the remaining Biblical writings don’t even happen without it.
There is no conversion of Paul, the persecutor of the church, without Acts 8.
The Jerusalem Council doesn’t happen without the great persecution of the church.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life,” (Rom 6:23) and “What shall separate us from the love of God… neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither present nor future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord,” (Rom 8:35, 38-39)… none of those words are written without Acts 8.
“4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails… 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 13) is not written without the great persecution of the church.
There’s no treasure in jars of clay (2 Cortinthians 7), no Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5), no Armor of God (Ephesians 6), no “I can do all things through Christ” (Philippians 4), nothing in Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, and no “wiping away of every tear from their eyes” in Revelation… without the tears of the church in Jerusalem in Acts Chapter 8:1.
And what about the Gospels themselves? Think about verse 1, "all except the apostles were scattered..." Would the Gospels have need to be written, would they have been as reliably copied, preserved, and passed down to us today, without the great persecution of the church?
None of these beloved passages and writings would have come to fruition without the words, “On that day, a great persecution broke out against the church… and those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.”
What do you think it was like “on that day”? How painful was it? How frightening was it? How much did people question the worth of sticking it out?
How much did people miss seeing their friends – their church family? How much did people resent being forced by their authorities to not meet together? As their inability to meet together stretched longer and longer, how many of them lost hope?
They could have fussed a lot about it, and human nature being what it is, some probably did. But by and large (to paraphrase Thomas Paine) these were times that tried men’s souls… and those who came before us passed with flying colors. In the face of their greatest difficulty and “preaching the word wherever they went,” the people of God persevered, innovated, and stepped up to the challenge to honor their call from God - even in the midst of difficult circumstances - and go on to produce life-giving communities that grew like a fire throughout the known world.
What if some of the greatest hardships we experience as the collective people of God can be turned into a future we never before could have imagined?
There is a difference between seeing things as an obstacle and seeing them as an opportunity. And by the account we have in Acts 8 and onward, the followers of Jesus at that particular time chose to see this major obstacle as an opportunity - to become more like Jesus.
Imitating Christ, the church in Acts 8 all but died… and resurrected afterward. And because it went on to spread from there to places all over the globe, it was on the cusp of becoming an unstoppable force at the guidance of a God who is not bound by life’s restraints.
Such as being restricted from physically meeting together…
But the story isn’t finished yet. It is ongoing and it includes us and our time. There will be annals of our own history that will be written containing words like the ones we find in Acts 8 – “On that day...”
My pastor talks often about going into the history records of my 200+ year old church, to read about the people who came before us, the trials they faced, the decisions they made, and the courage with which they stood that led to my community of faith still standing here today.
Some day in the future, those at First Baptist Church of Huntsville, AL who come after us will do the same. A future pastor of FBC will read about my church and our times. And those who come after you at your church will, as well. They will read about us.
While 2020 certainly has been a turning point for our lives, it may not be a turning point for my church or for yours. It may only be a footnote in the history of the faith communities we belong to. Regardless, turning point or footnote, the words about our time will read, “On that day, a great pandemic broke out against the church…”
But what will they read after those words? Will they read we complained about this new obstacle, that we gave up on the church altogether... or will they see us embrace the opportunity to invent and innovate and seize the chance to, once again, become an unstoppable force?
That part is up to us. And so far, the results are inconclusive – at best. There are those among us who would get a failing grade, who are making the most noise about our current situation and current restraints… but I don’t believe they make up the majority of the communities of faith in our society. They don’t speak for you and I.
They are the loudest. But they are not the largest.
There are many more doing all they can, figuring out new ways to “not forsake meeting together (Heb 10:25),” how to continue loving their neighbor, or how these current circumstances might work to shape us into the image of Christ, just as we are called.
Figuring out how to come back stronger than when we went down.
Just as the churches after Acts 8 did and just as their savior, whom they are called to imitate, did.
As we begin to emerge into a post-COVID age, if you and I can get past the challenges and obstacles to focus on creativity and opportunities, there will be things we do and figure out in this time that those after us will come to love and come to identify with. Just as we have come to love and identify with so much of what we find after Acts 8.
2020 has been discouraging, no doubt. It has included many obstacles, for sure. But it has also given us a tremendous opportunity – to continue to see and find ways to “preach the word wherever we went.”
Will those who come afterward read that about us? Will they see we continued to run the race, and we passed the baton just as it was passed to us for generation after generation?
It’s up to you and I to determine if they will.
It’s up to you and I to seize this… opportunity.
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