Thursday, January 08, 2015

To the church (Ministry in Thessalonians #2)

"Paul, Silas, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians, in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you." 1 Thessalonians 1:1 (NIV 84)

It's such a simple opening line that we often read over it to get to the meat of the book, but let's rest on the fact that Paul and his team wrote this letter "to the church". While there are epistles addressed to specific individuals, this one was intended for everyone. The fact that he wrote to "the church at Thessalonica" tells us that from the earliest days of Christianity (1 Thessalonians was one of the first books of the New Testament, probably written around 49-50 AD), the church existed in local congregations. Whether individuals came to faith alone (Paul in Acts 9) or with their households (Acts 10) or as part of a mass revival (Acts 2), they were drawn to find each other and gather for teaching, fellowship, communion and other meals, and prayers (Acts 2:42). They relied upon each other for spiritual and practical needs, and they extended their arms to the world around them to such a degree that the emperor Julian complained, "These impious Galileans [i.e. Christians] feed not only their own poor, but ours as well."

Why this emphasis on the local church? Why, despite all the risks, do Christians in lands with few churches still walk hours to services? Why are believers gathering for "birthday parties" that happen to include prayer, worship, and teaching? Why do believers in prison long to encounter another Christian, often more than they long to be released?

When we confess Jesus as Lord, and the Holy Spirit takes residence in our hearts, He brings with Him those things that are on His heart. We can try to suppress it; we can quench the Spirit; but anytime we give Him the tiniest bit of free reign in our lives He will make His heart known. And make no mistake about it: Jesus loves the church. She is His bride. He died for her (Ephesians 5:25-32). He walks among every local church, holding its leaders in His hand (Revelation 1).

The church is not God's Plan B. It's not primarily a place to meet people who share our faith and values. It's not even ultimately about missions or evangelism or discipleship. The church is about God. It's His Plan A to show off His wisdom to heavenly beings. Years after penning the letters we're walking through now, Paul wrote more about the church:
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord,in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. (Ephesians 3:8-13, ESV)
There it is preserved for all eternity - God shows His wisdom through the church to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places! Those spiritual beings see in the church God's wisdom.

It's a stunning thought, really - and a profound one. What we do, how we respond to the struggles in our lives, the reactions we allow ourselves to demonstrate when no one is around -- are all watched from the heavenlies. We glorify God when we demonstrate His character in such situations, even when no one is watching. When we personally handle difficult people, hard days, disappointments, with grace and love and the fruit of the spirit, then God is glorified as His wisdom is revealed. As "the church", we show God's wisdom when we work in His power and not our own; when we exercise spiritual gifts and work as a body where each part is needed; when we come together in unity around Christ without distinction of our racial, gender, or socio-economic differences.We may not feel like it's anything special, but from a heavenly perspective, God is being glorified in our simple acts of fellowship.

When we engage in ministry, we must keep in mind God's heart for The Church (universal) and churches (local). That doesn't mean every single thing we do has to occur at the church, or be an official church program. It does mean that we should not pursue ministry apart from being in relationship with a local church. It does mean that red flags should go off when we are approached by ministries that have little or no connection to local churches, are led by individuals outside local churches, or do not try to connect believers to local churches.

When we work together the propogation of the Gospel, when we truly see each other as parts of a whole that is needed for kingdom advancement, when our gifts strengthen and edify each other and the churches of which we are part, then God is glorified as His wisdom is made known in the heavenlies.

Jesus made a stunning promise about the local church. He told Peter, “Also I say to you, that you are Kaypha, and upon this stone I shall build my church, and the gates of Sheol will not withstand it.” (Matthew 16:18, Aramaic Bible in Plain English). I chose that translation because it captures the offensive posture of the verse. Jesus wasn't telling Peter that the church can withstand the attacks of hell. He was telling him that hell cannot withstand the attacks of the church! As we move forward for God's kingdom purposes together, the enemy doesn't stand a chance!

To quote Paul, "Grace and peace to you" - as you grow in the love Jesus has for your own church. Never doubt how much it matters.

No comments: