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A Theology of Reality: Lessons from the Early Church

When we read God’s word we don’t do it in a vacuum. Either personally or culturally. We are in a cultural moment of what the New York Times calls languishing [1] – a deep malaise that saps our energy and gives us an underlying feeling that all is not well. I think we are also perhaps facing a cultural time of reckoning – when things are being shaken economically, environmentally, perhaps personally. When hard or devastating things happen it can shake us as Christians – especially if we have thought of faith as protecting us or as a relentlessly upbeat path to success. But the Early Church didn’t think like that – how could they?

In an organisation of twelve people trying to change the world, it wasn’t the greatest of starts. There had been a denial resulting in the reinstatement to leadership of the main preacher of the movement. Peter’s denial of Christ three times is recorded in the gospels [2]. But honestly would you feel confident in the leadership of someone who had denounced their founder three times? If anything was humanly set up to fail this might have been it.

There had been a betrayal resulting in a defection of one of the twelve (Judas) and then the search for a replacement for him[3]. Betrayal by a follower of the Messiah needed proper explanation, it wasn’t airbrushed out; there was no PR massaging of the situation. A large chunk of Acts 1 is given to who is to replace him. There is no down play of how central Judas was and how deep the betrayal was. One of the core people in the movement had turned against Jesus and had turned against the cause.

There had been a deception involving money and power.  By Chapter 5 of Acts we encounter Ananias and Sapphira who want to VIRTUE SIGNAL in order to gain power, but are actually holding onto money and possessions whilst pretending to be fully committed.

The church of Jesus Christ begins and grows and flourishes in REALITY. There is glory in the midst of TRAUMA, DISAPPOINTMENT and human FAILURE.

Do you feel the moment we are in? A longing to be honest and to face our fears, worries, challenges… but a tendency in our church culture to be relentlessly up beat – to project positivity about everything? A Trumpian positive thinking or the more polite British version of projecting relentless success, a kind of up beat slick church culture?

The Christian life is about unvarnished TRUTH – not spin or pretence, and the encouraging thing is that God breaks in and stirs up his church, pouring out his Spirit when we feel weak and dysfunctional, as well as when things are thriving.

I have had the privilege of speaking at Focus at Home, New Wine and CreationFest in the last few days. These are moments when the church is gathering and looking forward. We may have suffered in devastating ways during the pandemic but it is into exactly this kind of situation that the Lord can move. May we say with Joseph “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering,”[4] and may it be true!  

@amyorrewing
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Image sourced from @amyorrewing Instagram

The Early Church began in honesty about the betrayal, defection and deception of some, and showed us a God still powerful enough to grow his church, send his Spirit, and encounter his people. If you feel hopeless today, it hasn’t ever been glory unto glory – in fact it is often out of ashes that God turns things around. That’s what we need today – we need Him to do it for us post COVID. Can God make us fruitful in the land of our suffering? I believe He can. 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html

[2] Peter’s Denial of Jesus: Matthew 26:69-75; Luke 22:54-62;

[3] Judas agrees to betray Jesus: Luke 22; Matthew 26:14-16

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html

[2] Peter’s Denial of Jesus: Matthew 26:69-75; Luke 22:54-62;

[3] Judas agrees to betray Jesus: Luke 22; Matthew 26:14-16

[4] Genesis 41:52

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