Almost all of us enjoy the idea of gathering together as a community to celebrate God’s presence amongst us, and to celebrate the Kingdom that He has inaugurated and that is being advanced on this earth. We enjoy the fellowship and the relationships, the conversations and the actions, the joys and the tears, the opportunities to bless and be blessed. Truly, gathering together in a community gives us a sense of security, belonging and identity.
But how comfortable then are we with the idea of scattering?
As much as God wants us to gather together to worship and to fellowship, God desires just as much for His children to scatter and go out into the world to carry His edict and to proclaim His rulership to all four corners of the earth.
The 8th chapter of the book of Acts presents an account by the Greek physician, Luke, of the scattering of followers of the Lord following severe persecution by the Jewish leaders. At the beginning of the chapter, we are told that the church in Jerusalem was severely persecuted on the day of the Stephen’s death, following his rebuke of the religious leaders of their stubbornness and wickedness. The believers were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Saul, one of the major supporters of the genocide, went along his merry ways destroying the church that God was establishing and dragging every believer he encountered into prison.
It would seem that darkness was snuffing out the beacon of light that was planted in Jerusalem and in the arm wrestle between religiosity and the truth of God that the strong arm of religion was pinning down the hand of God.
Yet, we read later on in verse 4 that the opposite was happening. Instead of dying out like sparks removed from a bonfire, the believers ignited into new pyres wherever they went and became beacons of light to the people living in darkness. They proclaimed the gospel of the Kingdom and ministered in the power of the Holy Spirit. They cast out demons and healed the paralysed. They brought hope and salvation to the people who were living out meaningless existences. In other words, they were re-presenting Christ in their new environments, which certainly was no small feat.
When we scatter into our respective work or social environments, how actively are we re-presenting Christ? How actively are we proclaiming the ways of Jesus to the people around us, and living out the truths that we hold onto in the midst of communities who have different ideals and belief systems? That is a challenge indeed for us all, who have grown quite accustomed to dualising our work and our church worlds, setting up dividing lines between the two homogenous entities. We like being in the community and interacting in church, but we dread going out into our workplace and communicating with the people there.
This brings us to the snippet of the story in Acts. When the apostles in Jerusalem heard about these new colonies of the Kingdom that have been established, they sent Peter and John to minister to the believers in Samaria. The interesting thing to note is that the believers in their new environments still maintained close relationships with the community back home in Jerusalem, enabling the sharing of the new revelations, blessings and the harvest that God had given them. They were united by the same conviction – that Christ is the son of God and those who are in Him are new creations, living new lives that are led by the Spirit – and from that, a common mission – to proclaim the new way that Christ had demonstrated to humanity and to call people out from the old ways of sin and death into new and living ways of life. This would certainly have empowered believers back in Jerusalem that their faith was not in vain and that the attempts of the religious powers around them to crush and smother it would not triumph.
This brings us to the next challenge. When we gather together, what kind of relationships are we building so that when we scatter, our relationships with one another are secure and unshaken? Do we want to build purely social relationships, connected primarily by entertaining events, humorous conversations and social obligations? Or, perhaps pseudo-communities, where we are careful to say the right things while masquerading behind our holy facades? Or, do we want to build living communities united by a common conviction and a common mission – to re-present the faith, hope and love of Christ in every part of our lives? The relationships that we form within the community are vital indeed to ensure that when we scatter, we retain our purpose, identity and belonging as brothers and sisters together on a journey to be conformed to the full stature of the image of Christ and to preach the good news wherever we go. When we scatter, we go out to the fields where the harvest is ripe and when we gather, we share the fruits that we have gathered to nourish and strengthen one another.
Another challenge this brings to us is when we gather, how effectively are we building up ourselves and our brothers and sisters such that when we go out into the fields, we will be ready to receive the harvest that God gives to us? We need to be equipped to stand as a new people, in the promises that God has for humanity and the power of the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead.
In the next snippet, we encounter a sorcerer named Simon who was became a follower of Jesus and was baptised along with many other people in the city of Samaria. It soon became clear, however, that the motivations for his conversion were primarily for the acquisition of more power for himself, probably so that he can somehow astonish even more people with his magical talents. He was so desperate for it that he even attempted to buy the power of the Holy Spirit with his money.
This poses the next challenge for us as a community when we gather. Many times, we find that we rely on our own strength and resources. We are more inclined to devoting time to walking in our own strengths than being dependent on God, not only in our spiritual growth but also in our ministry and proclamation. At other times, the busyness of the moment clogs up our ears and blurs our eyes to the whisper and direction of the Spirit. As such, we become so focused on the task that we lose sight of the grace and providence of God.
This calls us to examine our motivations and our hearts. What is the source from which we draw strength and resources to press on? Just as Peter said to Simon: “May your money perish with you” (vs 19), are we ready to say to the flesh: “May the strength that you thought you could amass perish with you!” If we stubbornly refuse to change our ways and repent, we should not be surprised when God says to us: “You have no part or share in this ministry because your heart is not right before me.” (vs 20) The question, then, is “How are we disciplining ourselves such that our hearts are attuned to God’s?” This, arguably, is where fasting comes into play. It calls us to discipline our heart, mind, body and soul such that they are not driven by the flesh. Fasting provides the opportunity for us to break the power of the flesh and be dependent on the grace and the providence of God through His Spirit in us. It is when we can come to a place of brokenness and dependence on God that we are able to then be shaped and moulded into vessels that can contain the fullness of His purposes and promises for this earth.
So far, we have the scene of the community of believers in Samaria growing and receiving the blessing and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It would seem like an evangelistic success to Philip, who had chucked in quite a great deal of effort preaching and ministering to the people in the city. However, before he got to settle down comfortably in his new community, enjoying the harvest that he had laboured for, God once again called him to another place.
There, he met an Ethiopian eunuch, who was a passage in the Book of Isaiah. He initiated a conversation with the man, a conversation that I personally find very moving and inspiring.
Many of us might be asking – why scatter? When we can grow together and begin to embody the image of Christ within the community, why do we need to break up and go out into the world? I believe that the transpiring conversation provides insight to why this is so vital.
Philip asks the man, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
He answers, “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?”
After reading the passage from Isaiah regarding the suffering servant, he begs Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else? Who is this mysterious figure who so willing laid down his life for mankind?”
Similarly, there are so many people out there who are asking the questions:
“Is there any other way out of this mess that we’ve made?”
“Is there no greater purpose for which we as humanity stand for aside from all the meaningless games that we’re playing with one another?”
“Is there truly a God who cares for this planet and for us as mankind?”
We might happen to ask them, “Do you know about the gospel of a new Kingdom that is breaking free?”
Their response might be: “How would I, unless someone explains it to me?”
Although they probably would not explicitly say it, but it does not mean that they are not seeking. Indeed, there are so many people out there who are questioning the ways of the systems of the world, who are dissatisfied with the purposeless existence that mankind has fallen into, who are yearning for new way that brings life and fruitfulness to this earth and humanity. How can we idly stay comfortably in our own circles when there are so many lost ones out there who are longing to discover the love, grace and mercy of the Creator, and His glorious purposes for His sons? Are we actively stepping out in faith, responding to the Spirit as He leads us to these lost souls? We are called to step out in the power of the resurrection, bringing light, wholeness and holiness to the darkest corners of the earth. We are called to bring the hope that we have in our Creator to the nations that desperately need the revelation of a loving and sovereign God who has a vision that is far above the agendas of the beastly empires that are overrunning the planet, a God who will one day decimate all the powers that oppress and enact His uncontested rule here on this earth.
Again we have Philip, successfully preaching the gospel to yet another faithful believer. Before he gets to delight in his success, God moves him again! In the blink of an eye, he was led away by the Spirit to yet another place. Talk about God’s movement!
Perhaps we can indeed draw a powerful lesson from this. Often times, God calls us and leads us from one place to another, again and again. Just when we feel comfortable settling down in a particular job, he shakes us around and calls us to leave. Just when we are beginning to enjoy the comforts of serving in a particular ministry, He tells us to pack our bags and leave. It should concern us that God’s word can come unpredictably sometimes. However, when we are secure in the hope that we profess and the Source of that hope, we can respond readily in faith to His calling. The security that we have in what we know casts out the fear of what we do not know.
Although the eunuch encountered Philip only once in his lifetime, the moment made such an impact on his life that it changed his life forever.
Despite probably meeting most people only once in our lifetimes, what are we building or investing into that will make an impact on the community around us? It should challenge us to consider whether the things that we are putting our lives into will prepare the foundations for the next generation to build upon, or whether it will have any bearings on the people around us even if it means we will be led somewhere else before we get to enjoy the benefits of it. Also, it should challenge us to live lives that are radically different that one encounter would be enough for others to notice something different in the way we interact and engage with the world around us.
To sum it all up, we gather together to build our spiritual muscles, sharpen our convictions, polish our faith and revitalise our hope. We gather so that we can be train together to be people who can embody the faith, hope and love of Christ as a community of people knitted together by a common conviction and purpose. We gather together so that authentic relationships can form amongst us so that we can carry with us the sense of identity, purpose and belonging as part of the body of Christ that is advancing to cover all parts of the earth.
All this prepares us so that we can scatter to the ends of the earth to proclaim the Good News of the power and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the Kingdom that He has begun amongst us and is now filling the earth. All this prepares us to be witnesses of His Word and to live out the truths of the Biblical story and the ways of Jesus in such a way that it makes such an impact to the people around us. All this prepares us to traverse new frontiers, opening up spaces and erecting beacons of light and hope where the grace, love and joy of the Creator can be found even in the darkest and most sinister place on the earth.
Ultimately, we gather to scatter!
Picture taken from http://smokedval.deviantart.com/art/dandelion-63577197