The Gathered Church

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Hebrews 10:24-25

We gathered together as a church on Sunday. There were about 20 of us who were there in the building experiencing worship live. The rest of us were at home experiencing the live streaming of the service. I was telling a pastor friend the other day that trying to plan a service like this (with all the CDC safety protocols, all the live streaming tech in place, and all the details of a regular service still there) is like trying to pull off a church service under water, scuba gear and all. It’s a lot of hard work.

But then I started to think about the global church, specifically the persecuted church. This is how they have had to gather for decades. They are used to gathering with no more than 20 to 50 folks in the same room. They can’t afford to gather in bigger groups because of the real threat of getting caught, imprisoned, and/or killed.

When we gather like this, we may be afraid that a virus could get us sick. When they gather, they are afraid someone will find out and put them to death. When we gather like this, we have the freedom to broadcast our service across the internet for all to see. When they gather like this, they can’t even hint at the existence of their gathering. Most of them have to pretend to be faithful Muslims or committed Communists.

We think that it would be easier for us just to stay home. And it would be. But imagine how much easier it would be for the persecuted church to give up meeting together, how much easier it would be for them just to stay home. And I was reminded on Sunday, in that small gathering of 20 worshipers, why the Church chooses to gather despite the dangers that come with gathering.

The experience of worshipping in person, preaching in person, hearing the word of God in person is incomparably different than doing each of those things through technology from the comfort of our homes. There is power when believers gather that can only be experienced in person. The Presence of God is tangible in a way that cannot be replicated at home in front of a screen.

Sometimes we legitimately can’t gather and shouldn’t gather. And for these times, technology is a gift from God. But when we can gather, even when there is risk, we should gather. Last Sunday Jesus’s words became very real to me: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them“(Matthew 18:20). And no doubt, He was.

The Willing

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

Matthew 21:28-32

I met with a Methodist pastor the other day who is not only engaging in the gifts of the Spirit but is also equipping his church to do the same. He is creating space in the Methodist liturgy to give words of knowledge, pray for healing, and give testimonies of those who have been healed. Before he was a pastor he had a career in computer science.

I’m meeting with an Anglican guy today who wants to engage his church in the things of the Spirit. He’s a post-doctoral research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Applied Physics.

It may seem strange to some that individuals with very rational and intellectual backgrounds who are from mainline protestant denominations are engaging in the supernatural gifts of the Spirit. We have tended to relegate the things of the Holy Spirit to the Pentecostals and those “crazy” charismatics.

But this is a pattern that I see emerging in the Church right now. God is taking men and women who are highly intellectual–Ph.Ds, medical doctors, scientists, professors–and He is taking men and women from denominations not known for emotionalism or hype, and He is pouring out the supernatural gifts of the Spirit upon them. It is easy enough for our snobbish superiority complex to write off a trailer park guy from a Pentecostal church when he tells us about a supernatural encounter with God he had. But trying writing off an Anglican scientist who has a Ph.D from Hopkins. Our smug rationalism doesn’t know what to do with that.

Jesus told the parable above to remind us that He is less interested in what people will say they will do and is more interested in what people will actually do. Tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the Kingdom ahead of the ones who knew the Jewish law so well.

Today, Methodist computer scientists and Anglican Ph.Ds are engaging in the Spirit of God ahead of many others simply because they are willing. They are willing to step out in faith and risk. They are willing to believe in the supernatural things of God. And so they are seeing people get healed in their churches, they are seeing people activated in the gifts of the Spirit, and they are seeing God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven simply because they are willing.

It doesn’t matter what denomination is on the church sign out front. It doesn’t matter if you call yourself charismatic or Pentecostal or “spirit-filled” or nondenominational. If you aren’t willing to step out in faith and believe in the supernatural, if you aren’t willing to engage in and practice the gifts of the Spirit, God will find those who are willing.

I don’t want to be like the second son who said that he would do it and then didn’t. I want my story to resemble the first son. Though at first I wasn’t sure about these supernatural experiences and supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit–maybe at first I was hesitant and too scared to step out in faith and give a prophetic word or a word of knowledge or pray for the sick–but eventually I decided I had to be obedient and do it. The question still stands, “Which of the two did what his Father wanted?”

No matter what our educational background, no matter what our denominational tradition, are we willing? Are we willing to explore and engage in the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit? If not, God will find those who are, and they will experience the Kingdom of God ahead of us!

Proven Faith

Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel… “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.

David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.”

“Now what have I done?” said David. “Can’t I even speak?” 

David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”

1 Samuel 17:8, 10-11, 26, 28-29, 32

Faith in the Living God and courage to do what He’s called you to do often looks like arrogance and conceit to those who live consumed with fear and doubt. David did not have faith in his own abilities; he had faith in the God of Israel and God’s ability to use David. People with this kind of faith come across as arrogant to those who struggle to trust God and don’t believe God can use them for great things.

But David had more than faith in God and confidence that God could use him. He had experience in trusting the Lord and seeing the Lord use him.

Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”

But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”

1 Samuel 17:33-37

It wasn’t just that Eliab struggled to trust God. It wasn’t just that Eliab doubted how God could use him (In other words, he didn’t have an identity grounded in the Lord). But it was also that Eliab didn’t have experience trusting in the Lord in difficult situations and seeing the Lord come through for him. David did.

For David, this wasn’t blind faith. This was proven faith. God had proven Himself faithful time and time again as David stepped out in faith. Goliath simply represented the next step of faith, not a “giant” leap.

The problem with many of us is not that we don’t possess “giant level” faith. The problem is that we haven’t been taking the smaller steps of faith behind-the-scenes when no one else was around. We haven’t been taking the smaller risks to trust in the Lord and see Him come through. This is what prepares us for the day of battle–the day where giant faith is needed.

In other words, the real issue isn’t that we don’t have the faith to face a Goliath. The real issue is that we haven’t been taking the smaller steps of faith to go after a lion or a bear. We haven’t been willing to take those risks when we were in charge of sheep, and we wonder why we can’t take charge of an army and face a Goliath.

David was full of faith and confident in how God could use him because of all the risks he took leading up to this moment. Goliath was simply the next logical step. What seemed impossible to the rest of the army just seemed reasonable to David.

It’s not blind faith that makes the impossible seem reasonable; it’s proven faith. Tested and proven faith–faith that’s been seasoned with real experience–is what is able to face down impossible situations. Proven faith is something that grows in the life of a person willing to continually take risks that require trust in the Lord. It’s a lifestyle, not something that is mustered up in a crisis.

Stepping up and stepping out with proven faith will often look arrogant to those who have confused doubt with humility. For too many Christians, humility looks like uncertain timidity, waffling doubt, and the fear of what other people will say. But is that the humility we see Jesus live out? Is that how we would describe Jesus? Timid? Waffling in doubt? Afraid of what people will say? No way! And yet Jesus walked in absolute perfect humility.

What David did to face down Goliath took tremendous humility because it required him to trust not in his own strength and ability but in the Lord. So what looked like an act of arrogant conceit to his brother was actually radical humility on display. This teaches us that radical humility may, at times, look like meekness, yet at other times it will look like bold courage. David’s action was radical humility in bold courage form. David had to trust that the Lord would come through for him. He also had to trust what the Lord said about him. He had to trust that God could use him powerfully. David risked his life based on that trust. That’s true humility.

I’ve seen this same accusation of arrogance and conceit in the Christian community launched against people stepping out in proven faith and bold courage for the name of Jesus. We have whole churches, and sometimes whole denominations, full of Eliabs. Timid uncertainty–waffling doubt–is not humility. Most of the time it’s a symptom of unbelief.

Eliabs mask their fear and unbelief by calling it prudent wisdom. They only want to do what seems reasonable, measured, safe. Is that how the New Testament describes the life of following Jesus? Safe? Reasonable? Measured? Not even close.

I don’t want to be an Eliab. I want to be a David, don’t you? I want to walk in bold, proven faith. I want to step out and take risks for the name of Jesus regardless of the whispers and gossip it creates around me. I want to lay my life down and trust the Lord. I want to believe what He says about me in His word, and I want to trust Him for big things. Don’t you?

It doesn’t start with Goliaths. It starts with sheep. It starts with lions and bears. What risk is God asking you to take? What steps of radical faith is He requiring of you in 2020?

If it’s You…

When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Matthew 14:26-29

The disciples didn’t know it was Jesus at first. They saw something miraculous happening, a man walking on water, but they weren’t sure it was from the Lord. They weren’t sure it was Jesus. At first, they thought it might be a ghost.

Jesus reassures them that it is, in fact, Him. But they still aren’t convinced. They feel like they need some kind of proof that it’s Jesus. Peter starts with, “Lord, if it’s you…” Peter wants verification that the miraculous thing they are witnessing is Jesus and not something else.

Peter reasons that if it is really Jesus, he would be able to come to Jesus on the water. In other words, Jesus kept empowering His disciples to do what He was doing. So it makes sense that if Jesus is the one walking on water, He could also empower His disciples to do it. But if it’s just a ghost, then Peter would never be able to walk on the water.

Jesus agrees.

Jesus invites Peter to come to Him on the water. This is Jesus’s evidence that it is, in fact, Him. The disciples could have just taken Jesus at His word. But if they want evidence that Jesus is the one doing the miracle, they’ll have to take a risk and step out in faith.

All of this still applies today. So many people see a miraculous thing and wonder if it’s really Jesus. Even after Jesus shows up in miraculous ways, people still doubt it is Him. They don’t take Him at His word, so they ask for evidence. Yet, the only evidence that Jesus is willing to give comes after a step of faith. He essentially says, “Believe what I am saying is true, take a risk to try it yourself, and then you will know it is me.”

This isn’t exactly the scientific method we western Christians are used to. We wrongly assume proof will come before faith. Jesus says that it doesn’t work that way in the Kingdom. If you want proof, Jesus is glad to give it. But it will only come after a step of faith.

We say we’ll come to Him on the water if He proves to us that it is Him. He says you’ll only know it’s me after you come to me on the water. We ask Jesus to bow down to our doubts to help us believe. He refuses. He tells us to have our doubts bow down to Him in order for our faith to arise.

We actually shouldn’t be surprised by this. This is exactly what God did with Moses. God showed up to Moses in a burning bush in order to send him to rescue the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. But Moses doubted that he was the man for the job. Moses said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?“(Exodus 3:11).

Notice how God responds.

And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

Exodus 3:12

Did you get that? The sign that it is God who sent Moses is that, once all the people of Israel are out of Egypt, they will worship God on that mountain. In other words, the evidence that it is, in fact, God sending Moses will only come after Moses listens to God and takes the risk to obey. We want the sign to be before we obey. God says that He’ll confirm His word with evidence but only after we obey, only after we take that step of faith.

Have you ever prayed that prayer that starts with, “God, if it’s really you….” I know I have! But we have to understand what comes next. God is okay with us asking this question, but don’t be surprised when God’s evidence that it is really Him comes after a step of faith, after an obedient action, after a risk. We so often want to obey out of certainty rather than from a place of faith.

I have found in my own life that God has given me proof after proof, evidence after evidence that it is Him! But this evidence came after I was willing to get out of the boat and take a risk to believe.

Where is God calling you to take that risk, that step of faith?