The Church Of My Dreams
I can tell you today that First Presbyterian Church of Orlando is the church of my dreams, and I can tell you that I spend practically every waking moment trying, with your help, to make this, the church of my dreams, into the church of God’s dreams.
That ideal toward which we are striving is straight from the Book of Acts, and the fact is that we could never hope nor desire for more than that powerful, joyful experience which marked the life of the church in New Testament times. Please do not misunderstand me. The first century church was not perfect—far from it. Read any of the New Testament letters and you will find words of counsel and admonition directed to those in the church who were hypocrites and gossipers, those who were contentious and divisive, those who were indifferent and unloving. You even find a reference to behavior as extreme as getting drunk on the communion wine! The church then was not perfect and yet, as you read the pages of the New Testament, particularly the Book of Acts, you see the church in all of its strength and glory spreading out like a mighty army of peace and love through the world. You see a great company of believers whose faith brought down evil empires and promoted righteous living and transformed individual lives and fulfilled glorious promises, and even stopped the mouths of lions.
Now what I want you to see is that the secret behind the power of the first-century church is to be found in a single, simple verse: Acts 2:42. Here, in just a handful of words, the four distinctive marks of the New Testament church are set down and I am convinced that if we focus the life of this church upon those four marks, then this church, the church of my dreams, also will be the church of God’s dreams. I’ll show you what I mean …
In the first-century church, they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.
In other words, they allowed nothing to prevent them from learning about the Lord Jesus Christ—both what He said and what He did. Now if this, the church of my dreams, is to become the church of God’s dreams, then we must be a great company of people steadfastly and creatively engaged in learning about Jesus.
Recently, there has been much talk and much publicity devoted to the concern that our schools need to get back to basics, that our educational system is producing people who are functionally illiterate. Well, I am just as concerned that the church in our time is producing Biblical illiterates. The Bible stands ready to be the source book for changing our society and for changing our lives. The Bible is ready to speak clearly to the problems, the concerns, the issues, the threats, the curses of our time and of our lives—but it can’t speak to us if we don’t know what’s in it or how to use it. We have been through a period of time when people tended to regard the Bible as just a human book filled with human words, a lengthy collection of stories and reminiscences. Thankfully, I see evidence that that approach is disappearing. It certainly doesn’t exist here in the church of my dreams. Here we know that the Bible is the infallible, incontestable, inerrant, indisputable, incontrovertible, unequivocal, undeniable, unquestionable, unfailing, sure-as-shootin,’ right as rain, absolutely sure-fire, foolproof Word of God. That’s what we believe and that’s what we teach here to young and old and all in between. We devote ourselves to “the apostles’ teaching.”
Then in the first-century church they devoted themselves to “fellowship.”
The fellowship which marked the church in the New Testament was infinitely more than some celestial country club or some sanctified sensitivity experience. It was a fellowship that tangled together the rich and the poor, the slave and the free, the prominent and the insignificant—and then galvanized them into one in Christ Jesus. Flip over in the Book of Acts to the first verses of the 13th chapter where we are told that the church at Antioch—which was where followers of Christ were first called “Christians”—they had five leaders: Barnabas (who was a Jew), Simeon who was called “Niger” (he was an African), Lucius of Cyrene (Cyrene was also an African), Manaen, a member of the royal court (a European) and, of course, Paul (a Jew). Two Jews, two Africans, one European. Right from the very beginning, the church was marked by a fellowship that cut across the lines of demarcation separating people, binding them together, instead as one. The differences were still there, but they no longer mattered—and out of that galvanizing fellowship came an awesome strength.
That is why in this, the church of my dreams, we must constantly seek to put aside petty jealousies, social inequities, racial differences, personality conflicts and selfish conceit. We need to see one another only as sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ, striving to live together under the standards set forth by Jesus Christ. Then we shall know the towering strength of the fellowship of the early church.
Next, in the first-century church, they devoted themselves to “prayer.”
They never talked to the world without first talking to God. But notice this, please. They prayed to God through Jesus Christ but then, led by the power of the prayers they prayed, they went to work in the world. Action without prayer is doomed to failure. Prayer without action is wasted effort. Jesus prayed, yes—He prayed regularly, He prayed “without ceasing.” But then Jesus took the power of those prayers and went to do battle with the sin and the evil in this world.
My great friend, Leonard Sweet, one of the most creative minds in American Christianity today, has said that for “a church to keep on its toes, it must first get on its knees.” Dear friends, we are called to be a praying church. So let us be.
Also, in the first century church, they devoted themselves to “the breaking of bread.”
That’s what we do here today. You see, we believe in what is known as “the doctrine of the Real Presence.” That means that when we come to this table and partake of the bread and the cup, we partake of the Spirit, the power, the person of Jesus Christ. Spiritually, He becomes part of us. He takes us residence in our hearts, our minds, our motives, our wills, changing us, making us into what He wants us to be, so that we in turn may change the world.
That’s what I want for us here in this, the church of my dreams. I want us to be a life-changing, world-changing church. Is that just some vague hope, some idle dream? Not on your life! For if we come to this table and confess our sins and open ourselves to Jesus, then we shall find God’s dreams for this church will begin to come true.
A story I heard from Frank Harrington and then I’m through …
Fred Craddock is one of America’s great preachers, and his first pastorate was up in the Appalachian foothills of North Georgia. It was the custom in that little church to do their baptizing on Easter Sunday evening, and since they baptized by immersion, they would go down to the Watts Bar Lake at twilight on Easter. Following the baptismal service, the little congregation would gather around a bonfire and eat supper together. After the meal, one of the leaders of the church, a man named Glen Hickey, would introduce the new members. He gave their names, where they lived, where their work was. The rest of the congregation would get up and they would circle around the new members. One by one, each person in the circle would speak to the new members: “My name is Jenny. If you ever need someone to do washing or ironing, you call on me.” “My name is Mack. If you ever need some wood chopped, I’ll be glad to do it.” “My name is Ann. If you really need somebody to babysit, I’m good at it.” “My name is Earl. If you ever need anybody to sit with the sick, I have a loving heart.” “My name is Ethel. I can’t do a whole lot, but I sure do know how to pray.” “My name is George. I just love this old Bible of mine, and I’d love to help you study it.” “My name is Mary. If you ever need a car to go to town, just let me know.” After everybody had spoken around the circle, a fiddle would start to play and a square dance would begin. Finally, at the end of the evening, the oldest member of the church, Percy Miller, with thumbs stuck in the bib of his overalls would say: “Well, it’s time to go home”, and everybody would leave. On this first experience for Fred Craddock he lingered afterward with Percy Miller, watching the fading embers of the fire. Suddenly, Percy Miller said: “You know, Craddock, folks don’t get any closer than this.” Later on, when Fred Craddock told that story he said: “In that little community they have a name for what happened there that night. I’ve heard it in other communities. In that little community, the name for what happened: They call it ‘church.’”