By Bill Mefford
This is part of a multi-week study of Acts and how we can continue to build a progressive Wesleyan movement that manifests God's Kingdom on earth in our local churches. Any study of the New Testament church will both critique where we are currently as a church as well as stir up visions for where God is leading us.
There are discussion questions below for you to use and discuss with your Sunday School class, youth group, Wesley Foundation group, or local network. Begin by reading the correct chapter in Acts and then the post below. End by answering the questions. Please let us know what happens at Bill@figtreerevolution.com and any new insights you gain so that we can share with others! Let's build the Wesleyan progressive movement together!
I remember reading Acts 2 during my Sophomore year in college. It was in college where I met the most authentic Christians I had ever known and they led me to rededicate my life to Christ. I grew spiritually and began to understand God's calling on my life. The only catch was that I HATED going to church. I mean, with a passion. All I had ever experienced was that church was filled with people who were hypocritical and fake. And above all, church was BORING.
In only 19 years I had been to a lot of churches. Some churches were focused on contemporary praise and worship and long sermons. I liked the music (though the lyrics got to be annoying when you sang them over and over again), but the sermons were constantly focused on your own spiritual well-being and took little notice of what was happening in the world, something I genuinely cared about. Other churches had thankfully less time-consuming sermons, but there was a lot of standing up and sitting down and lots of reciting things. And the music was like being at someone's funeral. I kept looking for the casket - ugh. These churches put the B-O-R into BORING. They seemed much more engaged with what was happening in the world, but going to these churches was less fun than going to the dentist.
So, though I had read Acts 2 prior to my Sophomore year in college, it was then that was the perfect time in my life to read it with a new intensity. As I read it, I literally jumped out of my chair and yelled "Holy shit! I want to go to a church like that!" I still had some work to do on personal sanctification, but the description of people sharing their possessions with others as anyone had need, of tongues of fire resting on the disciples so that they gave praise to Jesus in the languages of all of those present, of moving from the upper room where they had been hiding to the public square where the witness to the Prince of Peace belongs - all of this floored me. It created such an intense hunger to be a part of this kind of faithful community, and this intensity has not left me since that day. I had been discipled up until that point by a surface-level form of Christianity, a form of godliness without the power or authenticity of God, and reading this passage at that time in my life sparked a hunger that has not left me.
As I have spent time thinking about the New Testament church and it's radical hospitality for one another and for those outside the church I have started to realize that the one thing that this group of people shared that is so absent today, particularly in the United Methodist Church in which I was raised, is more than a shared doctrine (though many today in the UMC are obsessed with making sure everyone shares their specific doctrine); what they shared was trust.
If there was one thing I learned growing up going to church, it was to lie. It was not only good to lie, it was necessary. Put on nice clothes, go to church, and make everyone believe that everything is alright. Don't talk about your doubts, don't talking about your depression, don't talk about your loneliness, don't talk about your addiction, don't talk about your failing marriage. Just don't talk. Lying makes church so much more palatable.
But the New Testament church didn't lie. They shared their possessions "as any had need." This means that Jesus' followers provided a space so safe that those with needs actually voiced them so that they could be met. This flies in the face of the churches I have been a part of in my life. Today more and more young people are seeing the church as judgmental, divisive, and more interested dogma than in people. They see the church as anything but loving and welcoming. The lack of trust is what most characterizes the United Methodist church at the general level, but I have also seen and experienced this at the local level as well. Motives are questioned and the worst is believed about the "other side." Trust is only given to those who agree with us. Thus, no needs are shared and likewise, no needs are met. And no matter what happens with the commission that was set up to once again study the issues of sexuality, trust will not be addressed and certainly not replaced. Trust is gone in the United Methodist Church.
Any church or movement that wishes to follow the vibrant model of the New Testament church will want, more than anything, to be a place that nurtures trust. It must be a place where we think the best of people and we give one another the benefit of the doubt; where wrongs are quickly confessed and forgiven so that we can quickly return to the mission of transforming the world through love and justice.
The other part of this chapter that stands out as a lesson for those of us interested in building a progressive Wesleyan movement is seen in Peter's speech to those who had gathered. Just as Luke's gospel had a mission statement for Jesus in chapter 4, this passage provides the mission statement for this new gathering of disciples as they move forward in Peter's quoting the prophet Joel. What I have always found odd about Peter's sermon is that it seems much more a commentary on the structure of the new community just founded than a passionate invitation for folks to join them. He is critiquing what the disciples had grown up in as much as he is laying out the vision for the future and that is because our visions for where God is leading us are always contextual; they occur in where we are and they use symbols and meanings of where we have come from. Nothing happens in a vacuum.
So, Peter quotes Joel's vision of a new people following God where preaching and teaching are not reserved for a special class of men, but rather, prophesying will be available for men and women, young and old, sons and daughters. Affluence will not be a sign of God's blessing as people of all classes will be leaders. Youth will not be marginalized from leadership for they shall prophesy. And neither will old age mean that you no longer have anything meaningful to share as the old will dream new dreams. It is a beautiful picture of a vibrant and fully inclusive community committed to God, one another, and the welfare of the world.
This is a transvaluation of all that Peter's listeners had known in their lives and it is no less so for us today as well. The challenges facing the church I grew up in, the United Methodist church, cannot be boiled down to a choice between being liberal or conservative. Our institutional structure is no longer able to house the movement of the Holy Spirit. We are not seeing new dreams or new connections and networks spring up organically because we have very, very old wineskins and the new wine of the Spirit that births new dreams, new leaders, and new connections cannot remain housed in our old wineskins. It is bursting forth.
Peter's sermon was to people who had just seen their Savior murdered by the Roman Empire who conspired with a threatened religious institution more committed to securing their own hold on power than in living into the new movements of the Spirit. The birth of the church is at once both exciting and deeply fearful. It is exciting to see new dreams come to fruition, new transformations lived out in peoples' lives, and new leaders raised up.It is fearful because as the new is birthed the old must wither away, but those who benefit from sitting atop the positions of power of the old wineskins are determined to not allow such a change to happen. In the coming chapters we will see that building a progressive Wesleyan movement is not always cheered by the forces around us. But the Spirit is as alive now as she was when the church was birthed. The challenge to us is, are we as open to trust and to new dreams and new ways to connect as our parents in the faith were?
It is in this conflict that we watch the New Testament church emerge. It is in this conflict that we exist today, seeking God, doing justice, loving our neighbors, and waiting expectantly for the Spirit to come. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Questions to Discuss:
1) Do you feel trust for people in your local church? For people in your conference, diocese, synod, regional gathering? Do you feel trust for people in your denomination or national or international connection?
2) What would church as a place of trust look like to you?
3) Are the structures of your local church and your larger connection open to new movements of the Spirit? Are you in old wineskins afraid of new wine? Is your church open to young and old, men and women, people of all races, all ethnicities, all sexual orientations, and all classes being in leadership? How would your church need to structure itself differently for more dynamic leadership to arise?