It may come as a surprise to folks who see me go a little nuts on April Fools day, but I generally don’t joke about anything that has to do with God. Christians? We are a funny people and joking about our foibles seems appropriate. The Godhead in Glory seems a bit beyond the scope of my humor. But there is an old joke that makes a point I’d like you to consider later.
A man was trapped in a flood on top of a barn. He prayed, calling out to God and a voice came from heaven saying, “I will save you, my son.” With that confidence, he relaxed on the roof and awaited his rescue. Soon, a man in a canoe came by and told him there was room in the front. The man said no. He was waiting for God to save him. As the waters continued to rise, a motorboat came by and offered him a ride. Again, he turned it down and awaited divine rescue. Finally, as the waters neared the top of the roof a helicopter flew by, dropped a basket and yelled down for him to crawl in. He waved them off and sat there anticipating heavenly deliverance. It never came. He went up to heaven and asked Saint Peter a question. “What happened? The voice told me I would be rescued, but it never came.” Peter looked at him and said, “What are you talking about? We sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter.”
Remember, I’m from Iowa and corn is our main crop! But this groaner makes a point. Sometimes, we look furiously for solutions when God has already sent them!
I think everyone knows that there is a problem with the church in America today. Something ain’t what it ought to be. Whether you were for the GCR or against the GCR, the underlying truth unified us. The SBC has problems that need to be addressed. We are longing for the good old days when we were simply plateaued after several years of slight, but consistent decline.
It is the search for solutions that is pulling us apart. We tend to focus on “them” and their failings – those people are dragging us all down, right? Calvinists and non-Calvinists. Traditionalists and contemporarians, those megachurches.
But what if God already has given us a solution 2000 years ago, one that has been available every since, though often unused. What if when we develop our new strategies and programs, reorganize our institutions, point fingers and spit-ball solutions, he is simply waiting for us to make use of the gift that was given to us 40 days after Jesus left the earth.
Let me explain by introducing you to two groups of men.
The Twelve Disciples
If a corporate analyst had presented a report on Jesus’ “organization” in the early days, it would have included a scathing section on his leadership selection and training process. Jesus selected twelve men to live with him, walk with him, learn from him and lead when he was gone, and for the entire time he was with them, there is no evidence that any of them ever got much of anything right. They were low-class fishermen, tax collectors and political radicals.
And they were the spiritual equivalent of the Keystone Cops, or perhaps the Twelve Stooges – good-hearted and sincere, but incompetent. They bumbled and stumbled their way through the ministry of Jesus Christ. Their de facto leader, Peter, spent most of those days with his size 11 sandal firmly in his mouth.
Read Matthew 16:5-7. Jesus warns the disciples against the leaven of the Pharisees and the Saduccees, and they had a discussion about the fact that they had forgotten bread. They never got it. Jesus predicted his death and resurrection in the clearest terms, and it took them totally by surprise. In a classic moment of folly, Peter actually tried to stop the crucifixion by taking up a sword and lopping off a servant’s ear.
They did not understand Jesus or his Kingdom purposes. They said the wrong things and did the wrong things. About the only thing they did right was to leave everything behind to follow Jesus.
The Twelve Apostles
Then, there is a second group of men. They, like the first group of men, were unlearned and ignorant, but committed to Jesus. But this group of men, called Apostles, turned the world upside down in a generation. They were men of wisdom and insight, who understood the message of Christ and proclaimed it clearly. Within about 35 years, they took the gospel throughout most of the Roman Empire. They wrote letters that are still devoured today for their spiritual truth.
Their leader stood before a crowd of people and proclaimed the mysteries of Christ and 3000 souls entered the Kingdom. A sermon like no other.
Two groups of men couldn’t be more different. I would make two observations about them.
1) They were the same men. Well, Judas checked out and was replaced, but by and large these were the same men. Peter was still Peter but he was a completely different man. John and James had not been replaced, but they had been unalterably altered.
2) Only one thing changed. As best I can tell, only one thing happened to turn the disciples into apostles. One. They did not go to seminary and get an advanced degree in systematic theology. They did not get a box with a new video curriculum to revolutionize their ministry. They had no clue about the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism. They were neither traditionalists nor on the cultural cutting edge. They had no buildings and few resources. They didn’t know what a deacon was and were completely in the dark about church organization and structure.
And they turned the world upside down.
Why? Because Jesus baptized them in the Holy Spirit and fire, just as John had predicted. That was the only discernible difference between the two groups. The fullness of the Holy Spirit. Jesus told them to wait until they were endued with power from on high. The Holy Spirit came on them, they were filled with the Spirit and power and nothing was ever the same again.
The disciples never understood anything. The apostles understood the deep things of God. The disciples were confused about the purposes of God. The apostles understood God’s agenda and served it. The disciples struggled for supremacy and greatness. The apostles laid down their lives for Christ and for others in Christ’s name. The disciples were timid and afraid. The apostles were bold and powerful. The disciples failed in much of what they did. The Apostles succeeded in doing God’s work.
Could It Be?
Could it be that the joke I opened this with is not a joke, but a sad commentary. “God, why won’t you show us how to get this convention we love turned around? Our church is plateaued and our denomination is declining, where is your rescue, Lord? Why won’t you show us the way?”
And God speaks from heaven, “I showed you the way 2000 years ago, when I took 12 bozos and used them to change the world. I sent the power of the Holy Spirit on them and they went places they never thought they would go, said things they never thought they would say and did things they never thought they would do.
I was baptized in the Spirit of God at the moment I was saved. God’s Spirit dwells in me. As I die daily, deny myself and seek God, the Spirit of God fills me and uses me. Perhaps I need to stop asking myself what I can do for God and ask what God’s Spirit can do through me. Perhaps our churches need to stop trusting in strategies, programs and cultural focus and simply seek the power of God’s Spirit.
I’m not saying that we should ignore all the issues in the SBC. Sharpening our theology is helpful, and changing ineffective structures can make a difference. Our convention does well to reexamine everything we are doing to seek greater effectiveness. Our churches need to constantly reform ourselves to become more like the ideal defined in God’s Word. But we need to be careful to remember that the power comes from God’s Spirit and not from any human agency. I know some will dismiss this as cliché, but I am convinced that is part of the problem! I am glad our denomination is trying to reorganize for greater effectiveness. I am doing the same at my church.
But as my hero Henry Blackaby used to say:
Programs don’t work; God works.
May the Spirit of God empower the work of God in the people of God.
And perhaps, the most telling sign of our problems as a convention and as leaders is that many will simply dismiss this core truth as a cliche.
If I am filled with the Holy Spirit, my failings and weaknesses become insignificant in his power. And if I am not filled with the Spirit, my strengths and talents mean nothing anyway.
Baptists, walking daily in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike, traditionalists and the cutting edge, young and old, white black and every shade in between, can turn the world upside down like those early believers did.