Be The ChurchRev. Philip Miller | September 13, 2020
Selected highlights from this sermon
What does it mean to be the church? For many people, particularly in the West, we often confuse people and place, or “ecclesia” (Greek) and “kirche” (German), when it comes to thinking about church.
But in Scripture, the church is a people, not a place, and the people of the church have two important missions: the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. In other words, Jesus’ design for His church is to make disciples who love God and love others.
Pastor Miller shows us that we, as the church, are to gather and scatter. We gather to imbibe God’s Word together, and we scatter for impact through our outreach. God uses both of these to build His church.
Every so often an event comes along that defines a generation. Just in this last century I think of the Great Depression, or Pearl Harbor in the beginning of World War II, or the Kennedy Assassination, or Apollo 11 in 1969, putting a man on the moon for the first time, or the Watergate scandal, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or 9-11 nineteen years ago this past Friday that defined an entire generation. And I think we’re beginning to realize that we are living through such a time right now. We are in a generationally defining moment, this COVID-19 pandemic.
I imagine one day my kids or grandkids, or great grandchildren will ask us, “What was it like to live through the big pandemic?” These are extraordinary days, and not just for us as individuals, but for the church as well. I mean, who would have thought that such a small little virus could wreak such huge havoc? And today I want to talk with us very specifically about what does it mean to be the church in the midst of a pandemic.
Each week I close with this same phrase, the same words, “Go and be the church.” Right? And if you will recall...You have to think back a long time, but when we were in the building, as you would leave and go out into the streets by a lot of the exits, there’s a phrase, “Be the church as you go.”
So, what does it mean to be the church in a pandemic? What does it mean when we are unable to safely gather? What does it mean when we feel like in so many ways we’re in a holding pattern, just waiting to get back to normal? How do we be the church when there’s no church where we can be at? How are we to be the church in this pandemic?
So what I want to do with us this morning...I want us, as we teach here… I want to give you first a brief biblical theology of church. It’s what theologians call ecclesiology. So we’re going to do that first. And then what I want to do is to try to apply to our moment, to this pandemic, and how we are to be the church in this time.
So what we’re going to do this morning...I’m going to talk about church; the church, defined, designed, described, and decentered. Okay? That’s kind of our outline for this morning, but before we jump in would you bow your heads. Let’s pray once more together.
Father, come be our teacher. Jesus, show yourself to be Lord of your church. Help us to listen and hear what the Spirit wants us to discern. Teach us and move us forward in obedience and strength as your people we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen. Amen.
Alright first, the church defined. Growing up I learned a little nursery rhyme. Maybe this seems familiar. You put your hands like this, and it went like this:
This is the church.,
Here is the steeple.
Open the doors
And see all the people.
I had my fingers in the wrong place didn’t I? It was like this. There we go.
Here’s the church,
Here’s the steeple.
Open the doors.
See all the people.
Right? It’s a cute little rhyme, but it’s actually theologically incorrect, isn’t it? Because it makes a definitional mistake. There are two words that undergird our understanding of church in English. They are the words ecclesia or ec·cle·si·a, and kirche.
Okay, let me define these for you for just a moment. The Greek word for the church in the New Testament is ecclesia. Ecclesia! It means the assembly. It means people gathered together. These are the people that God has called to himself, and the people who are called together assembled for worship. So in Greek, the church, ecclesia, is the people. Not a building with a steeple! Right? It doesn’t have walls or pews or rows of hard seats or a choir loft or a 503-C. No, the people are the church. The church is a people, not a place. This is the ecclesia.
Now in English, our English word church comes from German. It’s derived from the German word, kirche. Kirche (You can almost hear church in there. Right?) refers to a building, to a location. If you’ve ever been to Germany you’ll notice as you go around you’ll see small towns and villages, and in the very center of these small towns there’s a big building with a prominent steeple. That is the kirche, the church that is there. And so, in German, this is the church, but in the New Testament, in Greek, we are the church—the people.
And there are dozens of passages in the New Testament that make it very clear that when the Bible says church, it means people and not a place. Here’s three just for example. In Acts, chapter 9, verse 31 here it says, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.
Now look at Luke’s description of the church here. The church had peace. It was being built up. It is walking in the fear of the Lord, in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, and it multiplies. This is clearly a people, not a place.
Or in Acts, chapter 12, verse 5, “So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” Buildings can’t pray, but people do. Or in Acts, chapter 20, Paul charges the Ephesian elders. He says this: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers to care for the church of God which He obtained with His own blood.” So the elders here are to care for the people, for the flock, for the church, for the blood-bought people of God. This is their charge, and so we’re learning and seeing something that many of us know, which is that the church is a people, not a place. The church is a people, not a place!
Now, why am I laboring this point? Well, because when Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build My church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it,” the word is ecclesia, not kirche. Right? Jesus is promising to build not a place but a people. He’s not committing here, not signing a pledge card to be a part of a building campaign (chuckles) to build a new sanctuary. No, He is pledging Himself to build a people for Himself, a community that will shine like lights in the darkness, a movement that will be all about changing the world with the message of the Gospel of hope.
Jesus never promised to build a place. He promised to build a people. So as beautiful and as historic as this kirche is, this is not Jesus’ primary work. The ecclesia, the people, are the church that Jesus most cares about. How do I know that? Because Jesus didn’t die for this building. He died for you and for me, for our lives, to make us a people, His very own people. And should some day a tornado come through Chicago and wipe out this beautiful church, which I pray never happens, it will not have destroyed the real Moody Church, will it? Because the real Moody Church is the people of God, where you are sitting and gathered and scattered all throughout Chicago. We are the people of God. We are the church. And in this pandemic, when all of these doors have been closed, the church is not closed at all. The church is as open as you and I are. The church, people, you and me, the people of God indwelt by the Spirit of God, engaged in a mission of God to be a light to the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that church is still alive and at work and on mission. And the church is as open as you and I are. We are the church. That’s how church is defined in the Bible, and it’s also according to Jesus’ design.
Let’s look at the church design together now. There are two key passages in the New Testament where Jesus gives His heart for the ministry of His church, His people. Okay? The first one that I want us to highlight is what we call the Great Commission. The Great Commission! It’s found in Matthew, chapter 28, verses 18 to 20. This is what Jesus says there. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always to the end of the age.”
So Jesus is saying, “By virtue of my death, burial, and resurrection power, I have been given all authority in heaven and on Earth. It all belongs to me, and on the basis of my authority, my sovereignty over all of creation, I now commission you, my followers, to go and make disciples of all nations.”
How are we to do that, Jesus? Two steps! Number one, baptize them in the name of the triune God. Share with them the good news so that they will understand the Gospel that Jesus has done everything to make us right with God through His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, that in Jesus Christ we can be made right, forgiven, set free. And when people believe that message and cast all of their hope on that reality, baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and welcome them into the family of God that is called by this name. That’s the first step.
The second one is, now that they’re in, teach them to observe all that I have commanded you. Instruct them, not just so they will learn and get smart in the things of God, but that they will learn to obey and implement and live out the teachings of the way of Jesus. Not just in some things, but it says in everything, including this very command to go and be the church, to go and make disciples. Right?
And so notice, friends, that a disciple is one who is making a disciple, and that new disciple is not a full disciple until they indeed are making another disciple. So what you have is three generations here, a disciple who is making a disciple, who is learning to make a disciple, and so this follows through to the third generation. And so it begins with evangelism, and baptism, and it continues with the teaching of obedience to the way of Jesus. And then it ends with a reproduction and multiplication. And Jesus says, “Don’t worry. You’re not alone in this work, in this great commission. I will be with you every step of the way until the very end of time.” And I want you to see that this commission is given, not to an institution, but to individuals. He gives this to His disciples, to His people, to you and to me, that this is Jesus’ design for our lives, that we would be a people, disciples, who make disciples, who are then making disciples. And we do this until the very end of the age.
And Jesus’ design here encompasses not just the what of the mission, of what we are to be about, it also covers the manner of how we are to go about this. And so the second key passage I want you to see here is the one that we call the Great Commandment. So we have the Great Commission.
Now I want to talk about the Great Commandment. This is in Matthew 22. Jesus summed up all that God desires of His people. When He was summarizing the law and the prophets, this is how He said it. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment, and the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And so if we want to summarize this down very tightly we would say, “Love God and love people.” Right? Love od and love people.” It’s what Jesus said in John 13 after He washed His disciples’ feet. He said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you must love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you also are to love one another. By this will all people know that you are My disciples if you have love for another.” In other words, our love is our defining mark and our witness because God is love. First John 4:8: “God is love.” Therefore, you and I, as followers of the way of Jesus, we are created by love. We are redeemed by love. We are filled by love so that we might be people of love.
So the mission is to go and make disciples who make disciples who make disciples. Right? And what is a disciple? A disciple is someone who lives like Jesus. In other words, someone who loves God and loves people. So Jesus’ design for His church, for His disciples, His people, His ecclesia, is to make disciples who love God and love people, who make disciples who love God and love people, who make disciples who love God and love people.
Now, let’s look at the church described because the church really, officially, theologically launches on a day we call Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came down as Jesus promised with wind and fire and power, and this new community of the Spirit was born. We read about this in Acts, chapter 2, where three thousand people responded to Peter’s sermon and became followers of the way of Jesus. And the end of chapter 2 describes this new community of the church, the people of God in this way: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and the fellowship to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles, and all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all as any had need, and day by day attending the Temple together, and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
In this passage we see sort of six defining marks of this new community following the way of Jesus. There are six traits here. I just want to pull them out for us to try to put handles on what we’ve just read.
The first thing, the first defining mark of this community, this new people of God, was teaching. Teaching! It says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” In other words, they gathered regularly in order to learn the Scriptures, specifically how they pointed to the person and work of Jesus, and so that they might follow the commands and way of Jesus in their lives. Teaching!
The second thing we see here is fellowship. Fellowship! They devoted themselves to the fellowship, to their brothers and sisters, to gathering together as a family, to love one another just as Christ had loved them in obedience to the command of Jesus, the new commandment He gave.
The third thing we see them doing is worship. Worship! It says, “They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread.” This is most likely a reference to the communion meal where Jesus broke the bread and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” So this is most likely communion.
And then it says, “and the prayers.” They devoted themselves to the prayers! Not just any old prayers, but “the” prayers, the official gathered communal times of prayer as a body. In verse 46 it says, “They were attending the temple.” This is, of course, the Jewish temple. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, and so this early church is continuing to gather for the worship of God in the temple there in verse 46. In verse 47 it says, “They were praising God.” So this is singing psalms, worshiping together.
Now, the fourth thing we see is that they had power. They had power, the power of the Holy Spirit. In verse 43 it says, “An awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.” So one of the ways that God validated this new community was by providing signs and wonders through the apostles, and while some of these signs and wonders seemed to have been particularly situated within this apostolic era, wherever God’s Spirit is at work, He demonstrates His transforming power in and through our lives through His people. And so this is again a mark of this new body of believers, this church that is arising.
Number five! The fifth thing we see here is service. Service! In verses 44 and 45 it says, “All who believed were together and had all things in common, and they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all as any had need. So here they are, pooling their resources. This is, by the way, where we get the whole fellowship fund idea here at Moody Church. This is where we pool our resources to help those in need. It’s straight out of this demonstration of the new community of God. They are serving one another. They are generous and sharing with each other. They are loving one another just as Jesus has loved them. As Jesus gave up everything for His people, now His people are giving up for each other.
I love verses 46 and 47: “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God, and having favor with all the people.” Do you notice here that they have a...there’s a rhythm involved here. There’s a public gathering at the temple, but then there are private gatherings in homes. There’s a rhythm. They gather and then they go out into smaller gatherings for intimate relationships.
Then we see number 6, outreach! Outreach! In verse 47 it says they were having favor with all the people, and the Lord added to their number day-by-day those who were being saved. So their new love as a community was contagious. People noticed, and the Gospel went forth with power. And the Lord added daily, daily, every day to the number of those who were being saved. And that was their rhythm. They went to the temple, gathered in homes. They enjoyed the favor of the people. The light of the Gospel was going forth. Everything was going swimmingly until persecution broke out. And we see the church decentered.
Acts, chapter 7, described a martyr by the name of Stephen, who was bold in his faith, and the religious leaders decided to silence. And after his martyrdom in chapter 8, verses 1 and 4, this is what we read: “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem. And they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Now, those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”
So when persecution broke out, it forced the church to scatter, to decentralize in order to survive. People could no longer safely gather in the temple. They had to run for their lives and to new places and new spaces and learn how to be the church in all kinds of different ways and places, particularly here in Judea and Samaria. But Luke wants us to realize even this persecution served the purposes of God because if you know your Bibles you will know that in Acts, chapter 1, verse 8, Jesus had told His disciples, “You will be my witnesses in (listen for it) Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” So Luke wants us to see that God is using this very negative moment of persecution to actually decenter the church, scatter them, and actually fulfill a very positive thing which is the mission of God going forward.
And here’s what’s amazing. If you look at the book of Acts and zoom out, you will notice that immediately a whole bunch of new names start showing up in the narrative, people like Philip and Ananias and Barnabas. What’s the point? There are new leaders that are rising up. The apostles stay behind but all of a sudden the church was scattered and new leaders starting arising up to finish the mission and advance the Gospel work, and so new leaders started showing up. And people got out of their comfort zones. And all of a sudden, the Gospel starts punching through geographic limitations, and we see a Samaritan come to faith, an Ethiopian come to faith, and a whole bunch of Greeks come to faith. And then the Phoenicians come to faith, and they are from Cyprus and Antioch, and the Gospel is going forth and reaching new peoples. And the church discovers a new strength, not because they were gathered together in comfort and unity, and had everything they needed, but no, as they were scattered and increasingly dependent on Jesus, it led to a power and a strength in a decentralized way that led to an explosion of Gospel progress. It’s incredible.
And so, friends, what we’re learning here is that the church both gathers and scatters, that wherever the people of God are, there is a pattern of both gathering together and scattering out. In other words, we gather to imbibe, but we scatter for impact. We gather to imbibe, but we scatter for impact. And as we have seen in the book of Acts, sometimes there are seasons of gathering. Pentecost, when three thousand people come together for worship and discipleship and learning the way of Jesus!
There are seasons (Chapter 2 of Acts) where there is gathering and then there are seasons of scattering (Acts, chapter 8), persecution as the people of God are sent abroad for greater impact in the world. And listen. Listen to me! God uses both of them to build His church. God uses both gathering and scattering to do His work in the world because remember. The church is a people, not a place. And whether we are gathered together or scattered abroad, the mission remains the same: “Go. Make disciples of all nations who will love God and love people.” And so the church adapts and learns to get creative and find ways to do teaching and fellowship and worship and live in power and service and outreach.
And throughout history, friends, the church has shown herself to be remarkably resilient and adaptable in the face of all kinds of things that have been thrown at her. You will find today all across this world churches meeting in jungle huts, in house gatherings, in prison cells, in underground meetings in secret, that the church finds always new kinds of strength when she is scattered because when we’re scattered out, friends, here’s what we realize. We feel like we lose everything, but in fact, we have everything we need because whether it’s persecution in Jerusalem or a pandemic in Chicago, Jesus is building His church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
Friends, here’s my question. Could it be that right now God is teaching us to be the scattered church? To learn to follow Him even when so many of our supports and structures have been taken away? What if He’s reminding us that His church is a people, not a place? And that the building doors may be closed, but the mission of God never shuts down? That we are here to make disciples who love God and love people? And we can actually do that without a building, without a bunch of programs, without a bunch of centralized systems? What if God is calling us to get creative, to learn new ways of living in the rhythm of teaching and fellowship and worship and power and service and outreach? What if God is decentering us, scattering us in order to grow us and stretch us and give us a whole new kind of strength and power that He can only give us when we are scattered? In other words, what if God actually has purposes in the middle of this pandemic for the good of His church and for His glory? What if?
Now just to be clear, I am the first one to raise my hand when people ask, “Can we regather?” Listen, I want so bad...I want to see...Do you know how hard it is to sit here preaching to a camera and ignoring all of these seats? I am probably going to weep like a child when I finally see your faces sitting here. There’s no one who wants that more than me right now. But in the meantime, how are we to be the church in this pandemic? And here’s what we’re realizing. That question is a question for each of us as individuals because the church is a people and not a place. We are, each of us, called to make disciples who love God and love people. We are, each one of us, called to live in the rhythm of teaching and fellowship and worship and power and service and outreach.
And so here’s the question. These are some questions I’ve been asking myself. I put these in the bulletin so if you have the bulletin, you can download it. It’s all right there. Okay? It’s all written out for you. There are a lot of words here. I want you to think through these six questions, and I want you to rate yourself sort of on a scale of one to ten, ten being high. And then I want you to think about which direction you’re moving in this pandemic season. Are you going up on the scale or down?
Here are the questions.
- Teaching: I have a nourishing diet of teaching from God’s Word. Is that strong or weak right now?
- What about fellowship? I enjoy glad and generous relationships with God’s people.
- Worship: I have meaningful times of worship, prayer, and communion.
- What about power? I’m experiencing the transforming power of God in my life.
- Service: I gladly serve and sacrifice for those God dearly loves.
- And outreach: I personally reach out to those far from Jesus but near to me.
Yeah, I know I ran through those very quickly. My intention is not for you to do that right now, but to reflect on that in just a few minutes. But here’s my suspicion. If I were to take a guess, I would suspect that most of us feel fairly good about teaching. You know, we’re dialed in. We’re hearing sermons. We’re listening to podcasts and the devotionals that come out by video which are excellent. We’re getting content. I think most of us are still feeling pretty connected in that way.
And worship might be okay. I mean we sing together. Maybe it’s hard to sing with the volume and all that stuff at home. It’s a little awkward. I get it. You know, I’m there with you. And we lose this communal sense of worship, don’t we, especially when it comes to communion? That’s just awkward when you are there by yourself taking communion. Right? I mean you know you’re are with the saints, but it’s a little different. Right?
I think all of us would say we really miss fellowship. We really miss our brothers and sisters. Some of us are missing service. There were things we did, volunteer roles and ways that we poured into the lives of others, and that stopped and it’s really killing us. And for a lot of us, outreach has simply just fallen off the radar. I mean who’s inviting anybody over any more? Right? I can’t bring them to church. How do I do that?
And all of that may add up to sense of a loss of power, spiritual power. Like, where are you, Holy Spirit? What are You doing? I feel anemic and weak. I’m just barely getting by on fumes.
So here’s the question. How do we get creative? Until we can safely gather, how do we be the church? Well, a couple of things! You know about the 20th and the 27th when we gather live. I am so excited. Man, I’m so excited we had to add another day. That’s a step in the right direction. Right? But we’ve got to come up with something that can carry us longer, because who knows how long this pandemic will be here? And who knows how long we’re going to deal with this? So one of the things we’ve thought about as a team is, we thought, what if we got people together in home gatherings? What if, on Sunday mornings, instead of it just being our family with the TV, what if we invited a few friends or maybe family members and said: You know, let’s come together. Let’s sing together. When we do communion, let’s take communion together. What if we learned together, and worshipped together, and had a little discussion, maybe a few questions about the sermon that we processed together? What if we shared prayer requests and the needs of our community? What if we lifted each other up in prayer? What if we even invited a neighbor or somebody down the hall who maybe is far from Jesus but they’d come over and do church with us some Sunday morning? What would that look like?
We’re going to try this. We’re just going to try it for the next ten weeks. We’re saying, “What would it look like for there to be dozens, even hundreds gatherings all over Chicago where people are inviting just a small group of people?” It’s safe to contain that. You know it’s much more safe to have a small group of people than a large group gathering. And we need hosts from all over the city to come host these things. But what would it look like if we could do that? Now, we know some of you have medical conditions, and there are all kinds of reasons why you may not be able to do that, and so you continue to participate online, but for those of us who are comfortable stepping out just a little bit and gathering with small groups of people, what if we did this? Our prayer is that it would be small home gatherings that would help us narrow the gap in terms of the deficits we’re experiencing in worship and fellowship and service and even outreach until we can safely regather. And who knows, friends, maybe this scattering, this decentering that is happening is the beginning of an explosion of Gospel progress. Maybe this is God’s way of kind of pushing us out of the nest so that we realize as we depend more on Him that He can use us in ways that we never even imagined. Maybe He’s actually building His church in this season. Could it be that He is raising up a people for Himself, for the praise and glory of His name that the Gospel might go forth with power, and that disciples might be made of all nations who will learn to love God and love people? And you and I, we get to be a part of what’s He is doing. Could it be?
Father, these are weird times. They’re weird. We had no way to prepare or anticipate. It felt like this was just a little speed bump a couple months ago, and now it’s feeling a lot more chronic. And what we know is we need you to lead us and guide us, to help us get creative on being the church in a really weird moment that we never would have wanted, but in your sovereign hand you’ve allowed. Father, help us to work with you, to sense your leading. If you can use persecution, you can certainly use a pandemic. We ask that right now on an individual and collective level that you would build your church. Make us strong. Help us to fix our eyes on you and to learn to follow you in every part of our lives. Help us get creative to be the church in this moment, that when our kids and grandkids and great grandkids ask about what it was like to live through this pandemic, we can tell the story of how we adapted and learned to become a whole new kind of decentralized church to accomplish the mission of God in the midst of a pandemic, that even COVID-19 cannot stop the advance of the Gospel and the power of God. Help us to learn this. Help us to follow you. Give us strength and power we pray. Help us to be the church! In Jesus name we pray, Amen.