Article of the week: A bigger and better plan?

24 October 2020


Major Howard Webber asks what the experience of the early Church can teach us today

IMAGINE that you are a harvested seed of corn in a bag with a host of other seeds. The bag is strapped to the belt of a man and, although you can’t see him, you sense the warmth of his closeness. In addition you are loving the company of your fellow seeds – bliss.

Then, without warning, a hand enters the bag and scoops a handful of you up and scatters you all across a cold, muddy field. Suddenly you feel alone, uncertain of where you are or what you are to do, yearning to be back in the bag with the others and to have that sense of warmth and security you once knew. With this unexpected turn of events you feel confused and abandoned, unable to make sense of what has happened.

Following Pentecost the Church grew rapidly, with God adding daily to their number ‘those who were being saved’ (Acts 2:47). Though faced with opposition, the infant Church was such a loving, sharing, joyful place to be. All were aware of the opposition, targeted particularly at the apostles, and how the religious authorities wished them dead (see Acts 5:33), but the Church grew nonetheless; it seemed that God was protecting it from any real harm.

They could never have imagined the change that was about to take place. No one was prepared for what was in store for Stephen, ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 6:5) and of ‘God’s grace and power’ (v8) – how he was to be the innocent victim of a kangaroo court that would concoct charges, present false witnesses and have him executed in the most horrendous manner.

On the very day he was murdered an organised persecution of the whole Church began, led by a young Pharisee named Saul, who had witnessed and been supportive of Stephen’s cruel fate.

The result was that ‘all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria’ (Acts 8:1). It was the last thing the people dreamt would happen. It must have felt like a total, irrevocable disaster. Everything that the Lord had built in Jerusalem was now being actively destroyed (see Acts 8:3).

Scattered and separated from one another, there must have been much grief among the believers. Grief at the demise of dear Stephen. Grief at the loss of so much else that was precious to them all, such as the close fellowship they had shared in each other’s homes and the regular gathering together of everyone in Solomon’s Colonnade (see Acts 5:12).

How they must have longed and hoped for the day when things would return to what they had been, much like the Jews centuries earlier after they had been exiled. Looking back at how things used to be in Jerusalem, those exiles wept ‘by the rivers of Babylon’ (Psalm 137:1). False prophets assured the people that their stay in exile would be short-lived, whereas Jeremiah warned them that it would be a long stay of 70 years (see Jeremiah 29:10). Most of the people who had known those days would never return.

For the scattered Church in Acts things would never return to the way they were. But a promise that God made to those exiles in Babylon was surely as applicable to the early Church as it had been to the exiles: ‘“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”’ (Jeremiah 29:11).

Those early believers, undoubtedly confused and questioning the sudden turn of events, may not have realised that what was happening to them was part of God’s bigger and better plan for his Church.

How might that relate to us and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the Church today? Scattered and separated as we may well feel, we may never return to what once we knew. Could it be that this is the only way God is able to dismantle and reassemble what he wishes his Church to be?

Whatever they may have lost, the majority of those early believers didn’t lose the thing of most importance or their desire to share it. Filled with the Holy Spirit and on fire for God, they wanted to win the world for Jesus. The situation may have seemed bleak, but the Holy Spirit inspired and used those scattered seeds to produce harvests beyond their wildest dreams.






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