The grace of God continues to confound me. This ambiguous and wonderful phrase means so much and does so much to color our understanding of the Christian life and yet we know it in such little detail. We throw around the word grace in Christian circles like it is going out of style. Sometimes, I wonder if we have allowed grace to lose its richness in carefree abandon.
Grace gets used as a euphemism for prayer before dinner—still my favorite is ‘rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub’.
We even use the grace of God idiomatically. When we want to judge someone else for the life they are living and the mistakes that they made in a time of poor judgment, we often stop and say, ‘but by the grace of God there go I’. The phrase has become so commonplace in our vernacular that we often overlook the times that the writer’s of scripture slip it in for emphasis. I want to highlight two more spots in Acts that made me pause and reflect on the immense necessity to have the grace of God with us. These two passages are pulled from the missionary journeys of Paul. The first comes as a concluding statement to the first journey while the second usage marks the beginning of Paul’s second journey.
The first missionary journey concludes like this in Acts 14:27: From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.
As we easily can miss this key phrase as we breathe between massive events in the story of the early church taking the gospel across boundaries and breaking into the gentile world. Churches are started all around the area outside of Palestine, and we can pass right over this as we prepare for the controversy meted out in the Jerusalem Council. However, when I was summarizing the events of Paul’s journeys the phrase leapt out at me and grabbed a hold of me. These two stalwarts of mission work left Antioch committed to the grace of God. They now returned to that place where they were committed to the grace of God as they had completed the work. Let us hold onto that for a moment as I draw our attention to Paul’s second journey.
After the Jerusalem council, Paul felt urged to take the good news of the church’s decision to the young Gentile churches. Paul and Barnabas agreed to disagree about the potential usefulness of John Mark and went their separate ways. Luke stayed on the path Paul went and states again that Paul was commended to the grace of God in Acts 15:40. I wish Luke explained a little more what this meant. I feel like we are not getting the full picture here.
As I think about starting churches in Bangkok, and crossing barriers of culture and custom to birth something new and connect Thai people to God, I want to know what the grace of God that Paul and Barnabas were committed to is all about. Is this a special grace that allows us to take the message to people who have not heard it before? Does this grace empower them to overcome obstacles to the mission journey? Does this grace include the power of God that accompanied them? Is it a mere knowledge that the grace of God is what we all need to come to know God as Paul bluntly states in Ephesians 2:8, it is by grace.
I think of Zechariah saying to Zerubbabel as he looked at the overwhelming prospect of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, say grace, grace, Zech 4. It is by the grace of God that the temple will be rebuilt. In the same way, it is by the grace of God that the church was built through the ministry of Paul. In some strange way, Luke intuitively connected the grace of God with the journeys of Paul. In no way can we expect to do anything or be anything significant without the grace of God. It is not us who do the work, but the grace of God in our life and in the community where we work that sees anything worthwhile accomplished. Let us hold onto the grace of God in the same way that Paul and Barnabas did.
I want to come back to the concept of the grace of God. As we reflect on this incredible and yet strangely undefined aspect of the early church, I wonder how can we know that the grace of God is evident in our church. An interesting passage popped out to me recently as I pondered the idea of God’s grace at work in a community sense.
In Acts 4:32-35, Luke gives a second description of the church in doing and being.
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
This passage comes in the context following Peter and John’s release from prison, a prayer meeting that brought the power of God and bold proclamation of the story of Jesus. Now we see the church, still in its infancy, experiencing earth shattering change. Tens of thousands of people now say they belong to the church and follow the way of Jesus. Luke describes these people in three ways.
- One in heart
- Generous or sharing with those in need
Luke sums up his description with the key phrase we are looking at in this series, the Grace of God in Acts. Luke says, the grace of God was at work in them. I sure wish Luke could have described a little more what that meant. Is he talking only about a work in the hearts of the people? Is he talking about a work among the people that allows them to show great unity with each other and share together? Is he talking about something supernatural happening in these people as a community–Something that allows for the normal barriers of people-to-people relations to fall down? I don’t know, but what we do know is the effect of this grace is that no one was in need. Imagine a church in an urban setting that could say that no one was in need. I find it hard to believe that Luke meant no one was in material need only. I think this need fanned out to include spiritual, emotional, physical and social needs as well. These people were one in heart. Imagine the relational needs that were being met by this community of faith. These people so new to the launching of a church, a move of God and they were without need. I may not know what this grace of God looks like, but I think we can know when we have it.
Let us contend in prayer as the church leaders did leading up to this descriptive moment in Luke’s narrative. Let us equally contend for the power of God’s spirit to move, but let us also allow God’s grace to envelope us that we would love one another in the way that Jesus said in John 13:34 during his last dinner conversation with the apostles. He said, we would be known by this one thing…that we love one another. That is what happened in the early church, and the church impacted a world with that kind of love born out in the grace of God.
I had a great conversation the other day in one of our meetings on church planting. We had a visiting pastor from Hawaii speak to us about his experience in planting a church. He said something at the beginning of the meeting that stuck with me the whole day. He said, know your identity. Know your identity and stick to it firmly.
After several years of hearing things like know who God has called you to be and do what God has called you to do, I felt this a profound and subtle difference. It is more than a calling. Identity is everything of who we are. Identity encompasses all of our being. Not moving off the fact that our identity is wrapped up in the person of Jesus Christ and his work in our life, we need to know who God created us to be. We need to have a strong inner sense of which we are including our gifting, talents, passions and motivations. This is the foundation for everything we will do. Our ability to do anything in ministry generally and church planting in particular flows out of a strong sense of our being, both in how we were created and our being connected to God.
We live in a world of comparison which often leads us to want to move away from our identity. We may feel less than ideal when looking in the mirror. If we read the right book and learn how to immolate a better Christian leader…then we will the person to do this ministry…
We easily throw our life off track just by moving off from the center and core of who we are. God designed us deliberately in order that we could be put in a place and time for a specific purpose. We can best fulfill that purpose by sticking to our identity and allowing God to work through who we are rather than whom someone else is.
Recently, I have been pondering the concept of the Grace of God, but in a different way than most of us think. I am not taking about the grace of God in our life; rather I want to investigate the grace of God in a community of faith. I am not saying I fully understand the Grace of God over an individual. However, we have tons of resources talking about grace like What is so Amazing about Grace by Philip Yancy. We know the story put to song of John Newton “Amazing Grace” being lost and now found. I want to look further into a part of God’s grace often overlooked in the Christian community.
A couple of months ago I came across one of those scriptures that make us stop and muse. I am still stuck on this passage from Acts 11 describing what Barnabas saw when he went to Antioch. The church in Jerusalem chose Barnabas to be their representative and check out what was happening in Antioch. We find Barnabas entering a city recently turned to God by Jewish Christians fleeing persecution. The church, still in its infancy and unsure how to codify what is happening, wanted to see if the growing response to the gospel is authentic. Keep in mind, Barnabas is the guy who gave Paul a chance to be included with the church. The apostles have tagged Barnabas as one who sees beyond prejudice and first impressions to what God truly is doing in a person or a place.
Here is how the text reads when Barnabas arrives in Antioch in Acts 11:22-24.
News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
I sure wish Luke could have expounded and broadened what was meant by seeing what the Grace of God had done. I can’t help but think there is more than just a transformed life evident as the grace of God affects change in all of us. Barnabas is seeing what is worthy of praising God. I wonder if he can say the same mark of an authentic work of God that accompanied Pentecost, the story of Cornelius and even the same grace work that Peter and John took to Samaria in Acts 8. In I Cor. 12, Paul writes about the gifts of the Spirit and uses the same word for gift as grace. Is Luke talking about the grace of God working as the Holy Spirit works with the beginnings of a new church. I find myself coming up with few concrete answers, but I wonder if Luke might be talking about that nebulous sense that God is present and working in a church.
What is it that allows God’s grace to be evident in our churches? I remember conversations with my pastor as a young youth pastor, and he said there is just something about a church that you just say God’s hand is on it. There is not a slick method, but God’s hand is just touching a church causing it to make big impact in a community. I know as we contend for a new church that makes an impact in Bangkok, we want to see the grace of God in the new church as we are working in another culture like Barnabas in Antioch. Remember the disciples were first called Christians here. Likely because they were no longer a homogenous group of Jews following the way of Jesus. This new move of God, this grace of God makes the church now called the people of Christ and breaks out from just a Jewish movement to being a move of God to all people.
As the New Year swings into action, I wanted to pause a moment and look forward with a year in anticipation post. 2011 is a year of God birthing new things in our life. Coinciding with the amazing miracle of a little daughter coming at the end of March, hopefully just ahead of opening day for the 2011 Baseball season, we are following God’s draw to birth a new church in one of the Urban centers of Bangkok.
God works in mysterious ways.
When Christina was born, her parents began their first church in Mission Viejo. Now when Christina has her first child, we will be birthing a new church. It is amazing how God uses metaphors to illustrate his love for new life. We see God’s hand on the timing of everything that is happening right now in our life, even though we would not have chosen the present timeline for anything that is happening now. If it was up to us to decide how life unfolded, the story would turn out quite differently.
Our plans looked different than God’s idea. We thought we would be in Thailand for only 1-2 years, not for the 3 ½ that we have already been here. We wanted to be planting a church in an urban center of Chicago after our time in Thailand. Then we wanted to have a baby three years ago. Now through a series of events and the mysterious working of God, He has blessed us with a child that we already love so much and has compelled us to see a new church that reproduces itself again and again birthed in Bangkok.
The year 2011 will mark some milestone moves in our life. First, we move into the realm of parenthood and the joys that come with that. We get to care for a precious young baby who will grow up watching everything we do. Wow, that hits you right in the gut with a humbling reminder to be the same at home and out of the home. Even now, we can see her playing in the kiddie section of the pool at our new condo and making new friends. We see her asking us questions of culture living as the child of missionaries, a third culture child. We also look forward to see her grow and develop in a bilingual environment. We are starting to build the patterns of time and relationship into our daughter even now as I tell her a story every night.
Second, we will be moving into the role of senior leader. Understanding that title doesn’t make a leader, but relationship and influence mark a leader, we will have a new group of people looking to us for guidance and spiritual authority. Again this smacks of a humbling place to be right now as we scan the horizon of the future.
We rest in that tension between the vision God has placed in our heart and the moment we are in presently. The dream to see God’s work unfold in front of us. We stand between the now and not yet as we look toward the future. We see so much as we stand on the hill and look out at the horizon of the time to come. What a beautiful thing the future is.