Sunday, 28 March 2021

Scattered Cohesion - Acts 16:1 - 5

In Acts 16 we catch up with Paul again in Lystra. We have heard alot in Acts about scattering outwards, but here Paul is actually re-visiting places he had already been (see Acts 14). So this is a phase of consolidation, a period in which he can check on the health of the spreading movement.

Paul is delivering an important message from where the movement started in Jerusalem. The message is about their roots in Christ - anyone now believing in Jesus (they are in Christ) is part of the new covenant people of God. It is not necessary for males to be circumcised as if Jewish (a sign of the old covenant). Yet we read in these verses that Paul did circumcise Timothy as a young man, because of the 'Jews in the area'. That is confusing for us!

Timothy is from a mixed marriage (Greek / Jewish), which were frowned upon by the Jewish community. Also the Jewish expectation in such cases was that you carried the faith from your mother's side (Timothy's mother was Jewish), and yet he hadn't be circumcised. So he was a double upset - mixed marriage and not duly circumcised! Paul sees his faith and invites him to journey with the team, which will include further outreach to Jewish people in the area (along with reaching non-Jewish families). It seems to me that Paul was thinking for the sake of mission to accommodate to the expectations of the Jewish people in the area.

Paul was highly principled. He solidly held that a new believer in Christ did not have to adhere to old covenant law provisions. Yet he also held another principle, which was "in mission you don't set out to be obnoxious to those you want to reach!". For that reason (I believe) Timothy was in fact circumcised.

But for us all that is a side-note. The key for us in this passage is that they travelled and delivered the decisions for the new Christians to obey. In other words they maintained connections between the origins of the movement and the new scattered outposts which were pushing ahead in mission They worked hard for cohesion across the whole movement of believers, even across the wide geography.

That is an important principle for us as Countess Free Church. As we talk about sending lifeboats, continuing to embrace church scattered, and encouraging new format small groups we want to maintain cohesion as a church.

So we are advocating a 'low control / high accountability' network. Low control in that for the new groups we only prescribe three things: have purpose, be sure mission is up there in that purpose, and be accountable to Countess Free Church. It is high accountability in that the scattered efforts should fully honour the leadership, the policies and ways of working of the church (including safeguarding, finance, reporting back to the church meeting and so on). In other words the initiatives are to be part of the overall body that is Countess Free Church.

In our scattered initiatives we want to lead people to Jesus (that's the number one!). Yet we also want those led to grow into long term, healthy, sustainable discipleship and Christian service. That entails encouraging people to join and be fully part of the church. For us as a 'local church' (with an obvious focus of the city of Ely and surrounding villages), one of the greatest mechanisms we have that gives cohesion is our corporate gathering, eventual (post restrictions) physically together.

So as a church we are not dispensing with gathering, and we are not saying we won't return to gathering post pandemic. No! We absolutely want to gather as many believers as we can for being together in God's presence, for ministry to one another, for teaching and for fellowship. We can expect to do that on the majority of Sundays in a year in due course.

But! Those gatherings will be serving and resourcing the outward network of discipleship in mission. The gatherings will not be the 'be all and end of all' for us as church. Instead the gatherings will sit relative to the overall purposes of God in us - His body - through us as scattered church, with different initiatives/groups doing things in various ways. That is why we talk of rhythm and diet. Our corporate gatherings are part of the rhythm and diet. It is legitimate for us to ask what rhythm and diet on a corporate scale best supports discipleship-in-mission scattered across the city and holds us together as one body (one local church).

In verse 5 Luke records that the churches were strengthened in faith and grew daily. In other words Luke wants us to know that for them, the combination of scattered small units with a connection back to the apostles and leaders in the core of the movement was working!

We want to see Kingdom Life across the City. We would love to see people added daily. For that I believe we need the Spirit leading us ... and I believe we need to be prepared to embrace the scattered. Yet we won't do that at the expense of health, of doing good ministry. Nor do we want to lose all cohesion. No - we want to be His body, a church in mission across the city. Let us therefore work out how to do that: scattering and yet cohesion ... cohesion and yet scattering!

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