A SCATTERED CHURCH

This is the second of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, each taking a theme form the book of Acts…

Acts 8:4-17 & Acts 20:1-3

by Tom Stuckey.

Luke’s motif of ‘journey’ permeates his two New Testament books. In his Gospel, Jesus ‘sets his face to go to Jerusalem’ (Lk 9:51). In Acts the journey is from Jerusalem through Samaria to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Jerusalem is not forgotten. As Robinson and Wall comment ‘The Holy City remains in the reader’s rear-view mirror, always in sight but now left behind’(p.111).

The first of our two study passages tells of Philip’s outward bound journey from Jerusalem (8:4-17) while the second speaks of Paul’s proposal to return to Jerusalem (20:1-3). The theological contexts are very different. The focus of this study will be on the former.

Philip’s mission, unlike Paul’s, is exclusively to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. Driven from Jerusalem he finds himself in Samaria. What once had been the focal point of worship now moves to the edge. Henceforth the ‘edge’ will become the new centre. Will the effects of Covid 19 permanently shift the pattern of church life from buildings to Christian homes?

Philip, full of the Holy Spirit and faith (6:5) was a deacon, not an apostle. In their ‘new normal’ however he breaks the rules and becomes a preaching and miracle working deacon. In a changing and changed situation fixed roles and understandings of ministry slip and slide as the Spirit leads. As Bishop John Taylor once remarked ‘The Holy Spirit does not appear to have read the rubrics’ (p.120). But not only this, the theology also shifts. At the beginning of Acts you become a believer when you have been baptised ‘in the name of Jesus’ but rather strangely you do not receive the Holy Spirit until hands are laid upon you by an apostle from Jerusalem. Paul, who is not a recognised and regarded apostle, simply goes ahead and lays his hands upon the Ephesian believers. There is a further baptismal anomaly here because these believers have only been baptized with John’s ‘baptism of repentance’ (19.5). Although against the rules, the result is another explosion of Holy Spirit power. There is theological untidiness here; but this is only to be expected when traumatic events force the Church to move from a traditional centralized system of control to the new norm of a scattered church.

The Jerusalem connexional team were able to gain back control (11:22f, 15:12f) over Philip’s Samaritan mission by sending the apostle Peter to validate the work. Peter’s presence also serves to affirm the ‘come to us’ theology of Israel’s restoration (Matt.10:5f) traditionally believed to be centred on Jerusalem. Paul pursues a different theological narrative. For him the new centre is the edge, though being a Jew he never forgets the significance of Jerusalem. The actual Acts history of mission is peppered with unresolved tensions and dichotomies in practice and theology. Luke, however, in his narrative airbrushes out these anomalies and presents us with a sanitized story of an advancing united church.

Luke’s account of the interaction between Simon Peter and Simon the magician raises additional questions about power and authority. Simon the magician clearly had a high status in the city (8:10) but this was overshadowed when Philip arrived demonstrating greater ‘powers’ (dunamis) (v.13). Simon wishes to know the secret so when the apostle Peter arrives he makes his request. The word which he uses for power is exousia (authority) (v.19). He wants his status back.

Questions:

  1. Where is the true centre of the Church? With regard to its authority?  With regard to its mission? Should this be the same post Covid 19?
  2. What happens to people when they lose authority or status? Have you ever experienced such a loss?
  3. Is theology something you make up as you go along or is there more to it than that?

 

A.B.Robinson & R.W.Wall, Called to be Church, Eerdmanns, 2006.

John V.Taylor, The Go Between God, SCM, 1972.

14 thoughts on “A SCATTERED CHURCH”

  1. Oh! I really, really like this! It expresses some of the thoughts lurking around the edges of my mind and the wonder and mystery of what might be available if we dare to move forward and not back.
    I wonder….

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  2. Yes – and the questions at the end would make for a very fruitful discussion.
    Thank you, Tom. I spent twenty-odd years of my life using, and enthusing about, the possibilities of radio and television for transmitting Good News into people’s cars, kitchens and wherever. Now that almost everyone in this country has access to the cosmic miracle of the Internet, there is no limit.

    Yesterday my own church congregation enjoyed our first video service – we have had Sunday morning worship live streamed throughout lockdown, with pictures and the words of hymns and prayers on screen, but this time there was an extra dimension. (We are fortunate in that our organist and choirmaster is also a sound engineer.)

    The minister, the local preacher who was responsible for the sermon, and those who were reading and leading prayers, were visible as well as audible, with the aid of one microphone, one camera, and ordinary church lighting. The service, including Holy Communion, was recorded mid-week in the sanitised, risk-assessed and otherwise empty building, then shared in our own homes, watching on our own screens – if not exactly sitting under our own fig trees. And the Holy Spirit was with us throughout.

    Forward!

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  3. Forgive my scepticism but my experience is that the church is good at lauding people such as Philip and Paul when they break the rules – that doesn’t matter since it was a long time ago – but is far less amused when people try to break free of its rules now for good reason. The truth is that even the Methodist church likes its bit of authority and is not prepared to be challenged on it.

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  4. Perhaps more important than the true centre of the church are the many true centres of the work of the Spirit. These extend far beyond the current reach of the church. The wind of the Holy Spirit blows wherever it will. In contrast, throughout Christian history, the church has sought to have control of access to God, wanting to determine who is acceptable, what thoughts about God are permissible, how one must interpret the bible, what processes one must follow to achieve salvation, and what are the proper procedures for fellowship and worship (such as what are the permitted forms for sharing communion – which apparently must apply even during a pandemic lockdown.)

    The call from Jesus is still “Follow me!” Does that not mean following the Holy Spirit out into the areas of need where s/he is already at work, as well as making our churches more responsive, and also adapting our church language so that we talk to people in ways that make sense to them where they are now in their lives? There is a great spiritual need out there, but people in the main are not looking to the church for answers, because it seems on the one hand to be outdated and living in the past, and on the other hand to be so judgmental. Convinced that we are in the right place, we expect outsiders to become like us, to follow the route we took, in order to become saved. Our role should rather be to help people to take the next right step for them from where they are now towards God, and that might involve a very different journey. We also as a church need to keep moving, to keep developing – because an organism or an organisation which isn’t developing is dying.

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  5. I am with Pavel here! The church tends to turn it’s back on the Spirit and see it’s role in terms of authority, power and control. It seems so obvious to me that the wonderful unconditional love of God is absolutely inclusive and non-judgemental. The two great parables of Jesus, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, state this clearly enough. To my mind the judgemental and divisive concepts of original sin, salvation by faith, the supposed need to repent from something or other, God’s Chosen People, God as a presence we find in church, the Creed, competitive piety and saying the right words in the right order lead to exclusion and judgement that have nothing to do with the love of God and the responsive love we should have for others.
    There seems to be a mistaken belief that to be ethical church organisation needs to be structured with an hierarchy that exercises authority, power and control over others. Ideas such a co-operation, communitarianism and (dare I say it) socialism are not even considered. I maintain that this “structuring” needs to be deconstructed. This would not lead to anarchy but to an inclusive and non-judgemental environment to enable people to grow in faith. Simon Critchley, in “Ethics and Deconstruction” makes the same point about deconstruction. It is not some sort of destruction but formative of a reconstruction that would maintain a “scattered church” because it involves an openness to the other person that makes it ethical. To embark on a flight of fancy is it reasonable to identify Jesus, Augustine, Luther, Wesley and other innovators as deconstructors – that deconstruction (and even Deconstruction as defined by Derrida) is just a secular name for the Holy Spirit?

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  6. If I dare say so, you seem to have a very old-fashioned view of church, Robert, particularly the Methodist Church. Did you listen to the speech by the new President this year?
    I am a follower of Richard Rohr and, though he uses different words, it is the same concept: order, disorder and re-order.

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  7. I make a clear distinction between motivation and practice. In practice religious organisations, like any other organisations need authority, power and control, though it would be reasonable to hope that they were ethical. My target is the church’s motivation (or the spirituality or the Holy Spirit). Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, based on love shown in forgiveness for past mistakes, courage to face the demands of the day and hope for the future. In particular He made the demand is that we be inclusive and non-judgmental. Unfortunately the church allows a platform for ministers, local preachers, vicars etc who preach a creedal fundamentalist message that is exclusive and judgmental. We all have a choice, but to me this is unacceptable – it is re-Crucifying Christ! I care about the future of the Methodist Church, it is important to me, but feel there is something wrong with the motivation and we need to reengage with the Spirit that works from love rather than authority, power and control.

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  8. How sad that those within methodism feels that repentance and salvation through faith is outdated. We may not like what God is saying through His inspired word but that is no reason to amend it to suit our preferences or to appease the desires of others.
    There is some confusion about the church (denomination) and Church ( believers who form the body of Christ)…yes a difficult concept to explain to the unregenerate (another old fashioned word). There is a need for some structure in churches to ensure accountability. This is why house fellowships and independent fellowships need to be careful that their leaders are sharing the true gospel and not ‘ear tickling’ platitudes. The Church can only exist with Christ as the centre and at the centre for He is the head of the corner on which and from which we build. The Holy Spirit sets out the plans for our building. The wise builder takes heed. The Temple is no longer in Jerusalem. .we are it!

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  9. So, no change then!
    For those who accept that the Spirit leads us onward I offer an alternative to yet another “revival” or a “reordering” that ends up being the same thing. I suggest that the deconstruction of the categories we use to divide people is obviously an ethical move and, as I have said, seems to be Spirit led.
    I would dearly love to be considered a snowflake! What a wonderful metaphor. As the snowflake is blown about by the wind so we are affected by the Spirit. Change is what we live with, even coronavirus, no-deal Brexit and environmental extinction! So I suggest that we engage in endless deconstruction of our illusions to have power and control over events and do the only thing we can do – accept our awesome responsibility to love our neighbour.
    I would love to count myself as a snowflake and join Amos, Isaiah, Paul (in Corinthiams). St James, Augustine, Luther, Wesley, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Rahner, Levinas, Martin Luther King, Caputo and other innovators as snowflakes, And that includes Jesus – the smallest, but most important, snowflake of them all!

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    1. I clearly touched a nerve with my choice of word. I was recently told I shouldn’t keep apologising so I won’t.
      Isn’t trying to turn us all into snowflakes an attempt to have power and control?
      Clearly the woke folk don’t like the word snowflake. Tough.

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  10. I like your idea of the need to replace transactional thinking with transformational thinking. My words to express this are that God does not make deals. The love, forgiveness, atonement, courage, hope are nor something we somehow have to earn but gifts. I suggest that if we deny that we are in fact denying God’s Grace. And if these gifts are freely given then God’s love is unconditional. From that point of view the church’s role should not be described in terms authority, power, judgement and status but to present a Christlike world based on love that is inclusive and non-judgemental.
    It has been my habit for many years to ask the preacher if they think God’s love is conditional or unconditional. Actually it amazes me that there are those who believe they are Christian and yet affirm that God’s love is conditional! This is harmful religion that I can do without, and I generally join those who stay at home.

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    1. If you are so sure that God’s love is unconditional, why are you so keen on transforming people?
      Surely unconditional means God loves us as we are, with all our different beliefs and opinions?
      If God loves them (and you and me) as we are, why can’t you join us to worship our God of boundless love?

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  11. I am sure that God’s love is unconditional because Jesus responded to people with unconditional love. Also because it diminishes God to assume He has favourites (some people have even suggested that it makes God a tribal God or even pagan!). Also I feel that I have experienced this in my inner life. In response to God’s love the motivation for my/our actions is unconditional love. In practice I/we seek to transform people by making them aware of this amazing love.

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    1. I wholeheartedly agree with your first three sentences. In the fourth sentence, I would remove the word /our; I can only say what my motivation is, not what motivates others. I disagree with the last sentence; we can and should make people aware of God’s amazing love, but only God can transform them.
      ‘We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.’

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