Title: “A Scattered People.” Text: Acts 5:17-23; 33-39.
In the movie Happy Gilmore, a washed-up (read: lousy) hockey player, Happy (Adam Sandler) discovers that he is good enough at golf to help his grandmother repurchase her foreclosed home. In order to learn the sport, he partners with a washed-up golf pro named Chubbs (Carl Weathers).
Chubbs can’t play anymore because an alligator bit his hand off while he, Chubbs, was searching for an errant ball close to a lake. As the movie unfolds, Happy happens to run into the same alligator. He wrestles the alligator, kills it, and puts its head in a box for Chubbs.
In a classic–albeit silly–scene, Happy gives Chubbs the gift-wrapped box. When Chubbs opens the box and sees the alligator head, he screams in terror, backs away quickly, crashes through a window, and falls to his death. So ends a tragic friendship.
Sometimes we humans do not give very good gifts. In fact, some gifts are sinister, even though we have good intentions. I remember several “gifts” people gave me that were absolutely terrible, like the time someone gave me unsolicited advice about my hipster beard before I went on a job interview. Thanks, but no thanks.
Some bad “gifts” are couched in church words, like, “It’s God’s will,” when there is an unexpected death. Or, “How do you know you’re saved?” when you’re coming out of a seminary building.
For the last two hundred years, the Church in North America has sought various ways–“gifts”–to bring the gospel to the masses. At least four major movements in U.S. history alone have seen the giving of “good gifts” of the Good News of Christ:
- The First and Second Great Awakenings were two periods in which the Church gave bountiful gifts of salvation for thousands of people who came to Christ.
- Another period, around the Civil War, was a third time in U.S. history in which missionary activity filled church pews and coffers.
- A final time that seemed to be a “good gift”-giving church was around the Depression and the Second World War, in which another movement of conversions helped bolster the Christian witness.
Yet, throughout this history there were many times when the Church gave bad gifts, most notably when mission work was accomplished in the name of colonial expansion.
The late 1800s saw the rise of industry and finance throughout Europe and America. At the same time, missionaries (especially in the US) were readying to bring the gospel as far as China, Indonesia, Africa, India, and beyond.
But, as missiologist David Bosch, once stated, the gospel during this period “always came to people in cultural robes.” This is how missions worked during the Industrial Revolution:
- Industrial tycoons financed missionaries.
- Missionaries went into an area, learned the language and built an infrastructure for education.
- Indigenous people groups became consumers of Christian commodities, notably the gospel and gospel “language”.
- Industry followed to take advantage of this new, English-speaking target group.
- The target group, in turn, became a labor group.
As these missions were growing, several myths became entrenched on the mission field: In order to be a Christian, these people groups had to…
- Dress like us.
- Talk like us.
- Read like us.
- Think like us.
- Live like us.
- Come to church like us.
All of this required people to purchase clothing, education, housing, etc. Spiritual consumers became retail consumers practically overnight.
We assumed that if one wanted to become a Christian, then they had to become “civilized,” and of course we were the ones to define what “civilized” looked like. This was extremely profitable.
This method of missions was so effective by the turn of the 19th century, that many missiologists and businesses were convinced that, surely, all nations would become Christian by the year 2000. At least one magazine started around the year 1900 with that in mind: Aptly entitled, The Christian Century.
Within 100 years from the Second Great Awakening to World War 1, the gospel became an export. Business boomed; entire foreign cultures were wiped out under the guise of Christian “evangelism.”
For the past fifty years, many communities–both domestic and international–have begun to recognize the dangers of these gifts, and many have been battling colonialism ever since–
The Church and the gospel, so closely aligned with western industry–also started to take a hit: No wonder so many people in our society immediately close their ears when they hear church words; no wonder why so many people run from “church” instead of making their way towards it. Church attendance has declined; the number of baptisms is down.
The church finds itself in crisis.
But there is good news–always good news!–because even though we humans aren’t great gift-givers, God is amazingly faithful at giving good gifts. What some see as a crisis in the church, others may see as a new “gift” from God: A gift designed to wake us up to what He is up to next…
In the book of Acts, we see a church in crisis. If you read the book from the beginning, without any prior knowledge of the end, you might conclude that the church’s days were numbered by the time you get to chapter 5.
In Acts 5:17, we see how the Sadducees, religious authorities at the time, arrested the apostles yet again. Persecution was escalating, and the authorities thought that they had this movement under control once and for all.
As the story goes, an angel miraculously freed the apostles, and the apostles go right back to where they were the day before: Preaching in Jerusalem.
When the authorities arrested the apostles again, they question them. Peter started to preach, and the authorities became enraged and wanted to kill them. The apostles, however, found an unlikely ally in a Pharisee named Gamelial, who spoke the voice of reason:
“If this movement is not God-inspired,” he said, “then these Christ-followers will simply scatter about like bugs on the run; their work will come to naught” (My translation).
It seems that the first-century church was indeed in crisis; and as the next few chapters unfold, persecution only got worse. By chapter 7, we get our first martyr–Stephen–and Paul sends all of those Christ-followers on the run:
- In Acts 8:1, the text tells us that all these Christians “scatter” throughout Judea and Samaria.
- In Acts 8:4, those same “scattered” Christians preach as far as North Africa.
- In Acts 11:19, some get “scattered” into Asia Minor.
We might wring our hands in anxiety and ask, “What is to become of this movement?”
Within our own day and age, we know something about being “scattered”:
- Families are “scattered” and torn asunder by hectic work schedules, school schedules, sports schedules, and economic burdens.
- Our neighbors and neighborhoods are “scattered” throughout the week as folks take care of their grandchildren, aging parents, and loved ones in addition to working ridiculous hours.
- Church folk are “scattered” and are hard to get together outside of the Sunday morning and Wednesday night routines.
- Church statisticians and denominational leaders are wringing their hands as they see a church community “scattered” with little or no desire to get organized into an “organized religion.”
Perhaps this is a crisis…But maybe we have to remember our old ally, Gamelial, who once said:
“But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them–in that case you may even be found fighting against God” (Acts 5:39).
You see, we here at Trinity Baptist Church have recognized this crisis long ago–We recognize that we look more like a “scattered” people at times than a big, fancy “program-centered” church. And we’ve been crafting our mission and outreach to accommodate all our busy schedules.
Yet, the panic of crisis still remains, and we are tempted to continue to give bad gifts in the name of Christ to force those scattered folks to continue to talk like us and live like us…To believe that the only place to find God is within the walls of a brick-and-mortar church.
We recognize the dangers of those “gifts” and we can see through them. (Perhaps that’s why its so hard to get volunteers to help work on our second floor addition: Not only do we not have the time to do it, but we’re weary of working on space for such a small community that barely fills this sanctuary.)
Let us not oppose new gifts of God though, for we may be opposing God himself. Rather, just as the same Chinese character for “crisis” also means “opportunity,” so too do we discover that a people who are often “scattered” throughout the week is a people who stand squarely on the mission field to which God has called them.
If you look back in the book of Acts, and you mark where that word “scatters” appears, you start to see a pattern emerge. It’s not that people are randomly going places by happenstance. No, God is the one doing the sending. He is the one “scattering” His people like a farmer scatters seed with lavish joy on all kinds of soil, allowing those seeds to take root where they fall.
It was the scattered Church, not the organized institution, in Acts that propelled the gospel into “Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Crisis was the opportunity to partner with God throughout the world. As one church father, Tertullian, has stated, “The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.”
Our church community, as scattered throughout the county as it is, needs to take our fifth core value seriously and see this crisis as an opportunity:
We value partnering with God beyond the walls of the church.
That’s where God continues to work, and that’s where God continues to call us–
See, when teachers among us go back to school, they are going back to the mission field. When some of us go back to the law office Monday, we are heading to God-country. When you have to clean your house when the kids are at school and then cook dinner for the family, you are a part of that scattered community proclaiming Good News by giving gifts of nourishment to your beloved.
Maybe we can take David Bosch’s advice: “Instead of talking about ‘the church for others,’ we should rather speak of ‘the church with others.'”
That’s why you shy away from the word “evangelism” as a method or agenda–You think that you have to change people and give bad gifts. But when you do church whereever you go, this agenda diminishes and you simply start seeing evangelism as a partnership with God in places in which God is already at work.
Church is not a community that “sends people out,” rather, church is a “sent-scattered people” gathered together to recall the ways that God is working out there and encouraging us to celebrate in here, only to do it all over again next week.
The so-called crisis in the church is only one in which we see all of those bad gifts failing to work anymore. That is no crisis! It is a golden opportunity to experience the new gift rooted in a God who scatters us in a field ready for harvest! Amen, and amen!
David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2000.pp. 297, 375.