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The Sent Scattering

A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled “Scattered” addressing the issue of churches closing in response to COVID-19. In that piece I referenced Jesus’ pre-crucifixion words recorded in John 16:32, “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home.”

While reflecting on this scripture, I saw the current circumstances facing our country and the modern-day church. Like Jesus’ disciples, we too, are in trying times and, we too, have been scattered. Christians have been cut off from their comfortable life groups, regular programming and familiar Sunday morning services to experience the unknown future in solitude and isolation. (Click here to read the full post.)

But, as I previously wrote, I believe that in this scattering there will be sanctifying. In fact, I believe the purification of the church is already underway. At this very moment, broken people are, for the very first time, entering into a personal and private relationship with the lover of their soul. There is a great awakening taking place behind closed doors and it isn’t over yet. In fact, based on what we find in the Bible, I believe it’s just beginning.

So, let’s return to the Bible and turn to the ministry of Jesus post-resurrection.

After rising from the dead, Jesus dazzled His followers with some seriously shocking entrances (such as coming into a room through the wall – no door required). In both word and deed, Jesus confirmed His holy identity while pulling back the curtain on the future, giving His followers a glimpse of what was to come, namely the Holy Spirit.

Immediately before ascending into Heaven, Jesus said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). The disciples were instructed to stay sheltered in place but not indefinitely. Once the Holy Spirit descended into their midst they were to then leave the protection of their homes so they could travel EVERYWHERE and tell EVERYONE about the way to truth and eternal life.

The disciples obeyed, heeding Jesus’ instructions to a T. They stayed hunkered down until they were met with “a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:2) “Then what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit…” (Acts 2:3-4)

What happened following Pentecost was a second scattering: the sent scattering.

Once the disciples received the Holy Spirit, they were transformed from fearful followers of Jesus into powerhouse proclaimers of the Gospel. Peter, the same disciple who had denied Jesus during the first scattering, became so bold and brave that he stood right up and addressed a crowd of skeptics who were convinced that the disciples were just plain old drunks. In response to that sermonette, three thousand doubters became believers.

In those early days of the post-Pentecostal church, followers of Jesus became united as brothers and sisters in Christ. They held everything in common, fellowshipped and broke bread together. They spent time in each other’s homes, praising, performing miracles and celebrating as more sinners got saved.

But it wasn’t all butterflies and roses. During that abundant harvest was an abundance of hardship. Standing up for Jesus put the disciples directly in the cross hairs of the enemy and his attacks were fierce.  Persecution reached a fever pitch when Stephen, “a man full of God’s grace and power” (Acts 6:8) was stoned to death. Following his murder, Saul, the chief of persecutors, gathered up arrest warrants on a mission to invade the homes of believers and imprison them for their faith. During that time, “all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1) and “preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4).

What’s interesting about this moment in the church’s history is what the persecuted Christians didn’t do and where they didn’t go. They didn’t hide from the unbelievers and persecutors who might hurt, imprison and possibly kill them. Nor did they deny the truth about Jesus or try to downplay their devotion to the Risen King. Instead they fearlessly proclaimed the truth of salvation. They boldly and bravely scattered the Gospel message throughout the land, distributing the Good News everywhere they went.

So, dear Christian, what does this mean for us? How should we heed the call in the midst of the COVID-19 hysteria? How are we to move from being sheltered to sent in the face of shutdowns, restrictions and government mandates? How should we as post-resurrection, post-Pentecostal Christians embrace Jesus’ command to go everywhere and tell everyone about the way to eternal life?

With each passing day, it is becoming more and more likely that our sent scattering won’t include a swift return to church as knew it and that’s okay. The believers in Acts weren’t living life as they knew it, either. Nor were they gathering in sanctuaries, meeting in connect groups or offering a stellar children’s programs. Yet none of those perceived limitations stopped the power of God from performing miracles and saving lives through the work of the earliest Christians. What the disciples lacked in organized religion they made up for in what I like to call the four F’s. Fearless. Faithful. Forward. And filled with the Holy Spirit.

  1. The earliest Christians were fearless. What’s so ironic about this particular characteristic is that, during the first scattering, Jesus’ followers embodied the precise opposite characteristic. During the sheltered scattering, the disciples were so afraid of what people would think of them and do to them for being a friend of Jesus that Peter denied knowing Christ not once, not twice but three times! Fast forward to the second scattering and Peter is standing in front of hostile crowds (including the authorities) preaching the Gospel! Retribution no longer scared him because He had encountered the resurrected Christ.
  2. The earliest Christians were faithful. Being a follower of Christ wasn’t a Sunday only event for them. Being a follower of Christ was everything to them! They were devoted to one another so wholeheartedly that they sold everything they had and held it in common. They were, as we would say today, all in. Becoming a Christian was the defining feature of their lives.
  3. The earliest Christians were forward. Shy is not a word found anywhere in the Acts account of Jesus’ followers. They were the very antithesis of shy. They were bold in any and all circumstances. It didn’t matter if the disciples were among friends or among enemies, they put forward the truth about Jesus Christ with conviction and confidence.
  4. And, last but certainly not least, the earliest Christians were filled with the Holy Spirit. It is this characteristic that empowered them to go from sheltered to sent. The impartation of the Holy Spirit was required for them to be forward, faithful and fearless. Without the spirit of the living God working in and through them, the disciples could do nothing. They needed to be unconditionally surrendered to Christ so that the Holy Spirit could be poured out and into their lives. Then and only then could they heed the call to go EVERYONE and to EVERYONE proclaiming the way, the truth and the life.

Friends, more than the reopening of a building or the relaunching of normal order, our lost world needs the simple Gospel. They need followers of Christ who have been scattered and sent to faithfully and fearlessly share with them the Good News about the blood of the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world. They need Christians who will come forward, filled with the Holy Spirit and unashamedly declare that Jesus is the only truth, the only way and the only everlasting life.

 

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Scattered

Today, April 5, 2020, is Palm Sunday and not a single church in my area opened its doors to honor the Holy Day. They’ve all closed up their sanctuaries in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Now all services and ministries are online, streaming from any and every device.

When the shuttering of churches first happened, I couldn’t understand why every body of believers rolled over so willingly to the government’s “strong suggestion.” As Christians in China risk their lives to smuggle Bibles into their country and hide in their basements to read them, Christians in American voluntarily capitulated. Only a few pastors put up a fight. Most barely even batted an eyelash.

What happened to heeding the words found in Hebrews 10:25-27: “Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.”  Why didn’t anyone defend the sacred practice of meeting together? Didn’t they think about the message this sends to the enemy? Won’t shuddering the church shatter the mission of the church to minister to hurting, fearful, broken people? How can we be light in the darkness when we’ve turned out the church lights and locked the door behind us?

These questions and others were heavy on my heart when I opened the Bible and turned to my daily reading which just so happened to be in John chapter sixteen.

In this particular passage of scripture, just days before His crucifixion, Jesus gives His disciples a heads up, warning them about the trials and troubles that will soon come. After the men confirm that they believe what Jesus says is true, Christ tells them, “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered…”

It was that last word that caught my attention. “Scattered.” Until this time, Jesus’ followers had been in their own little comfortable clique. They went out two by two to perform miracles. They traveled together by boat. But a time was coming when they would be “scattered.” Spread out. Strewn about. Separated. 

Isn’t this precisely what’s happening to the church?  Connect groups and life groups have been spread out into their apartment complexes. Greeting teams and worship teams have been strewn about in their neighborhoods. Pastors have been separated from their flocks. The whole church has been scattered.

But Jesus didn’t stop there. He then went on to explain that this scattering would be each to his “own home.” Now if that doesn’t sound like what’s happened to the church then I don’t know what would!

Can you imagine it? The disciples were about to experience the horrific crucifixion of their Messiah. They were about to be questioned and possibly persecuted for being followers of Jesus. They were about to have their faith in God tested unlike ever before. And right before all these trials arrive, Jesus warns them that they will be sent into the solitary confinement of their own homes to endure them.

In isolation is where the followers of Jesus would be still and trust in who God is. In solitude is where their faith would be solidified. It wasn’t on the boat. It wasn’t on the hillside with the loaves and fishes. It wasn’t while waving palm branches and singing Hosanna. Christians became “the church” of the resurrected Jesus at home and all alone.

Looking through the lens of previous Biblical history has transformed my perspective on the modern-day church and what God is doing within its scattered walls. By dismantling the familiar rituals and routines of church, a deeper and richer faith is being discovered. In the resting of small groups, Christians are being given the opportunity to relish the quiet and be refreshed in the stillness.

The enemy might think he’s winning but we, God’s people, know the truth. We have not been defeated but deployed. We have not been shattered but scattered.

And in this scattering, there will be sanctifying. In this shuttering of doors there will be an awakening of souls.