And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. (Acts 8:1)
I don’t know about you, but it seems like 2014 passed more quickly than usual. I feel like it ought to still be 2013 or 2012. Or maybe even 1999. Yet here we are; the calendar tells us it is 2015.
Sometimes when I drive around Pittsfield I think, this is not the same Pittsfield I used to know. Where is England Brothers? Where is Besse Clarke? Drive down East Street; where is GE? Where are the Thursday night crowds on North Street? They’re long gone. It’s not just that some of the landmarks are gone, but the nature of the community has changed too. The population is less than 75% of what it used to be. The largest employer is the hospital now, and the socio-economic status of the community has dropped significantly in the past two decades. Who could have predicted twenty years ago how serious a problem heroin addiction would become in our community? (Actually the heroin problem is all over the country).
Two decades? Wait a second! That’s how long I’ve been back ministering in Pittsfield! What does that mean for my ministry here? More importantly, what does that mean for Grace Church? What does that mean for the future of Grace Church? We have little control over our circumstances, but we can control how we as the church respond to the circumstances at hand.
Acts chapter 8 represents a major turning point for the early church. Up to this point in the book of Acts early Christians had witnessed Jesus’ ascension. They had experienced the arrival of the Holy Spirit and had witnessed unprecedented growth in the believing community in Jerusalem, all in a very short time. And then things changed. One of the first deacons of the church was taken outside the city and martyred with the approval of the religious leaders in Jerusalem because of his testimony, and then the dam of persecution broke. Christians fled for their lives, all but the apostles. Why did God allow this to happen if everything was going so well in Jerusalem?
Remember, the early believers had asked Jesus if he was going to restore the Kingdom to Israel at that time. Jesus essentially refused to answer that question, but instead told them that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and throughout the rest of the world. The early Christians had not fully understood Jesus’ promise or challenge. They were content with Jerusalem. But Jesus had promised to build his church in all nations and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. It took a little persecution to joggle them loose.
Oh, how nice it would be to remain cooped up here on the end of Williams St in 2015, waiting for Jesus to “restore the Kingdom to Israel”. Instead, Jesus is going to build his church and the gates of hell, heroin and socio-economic decline will not prevail. Are we content to isolate ourselves behind our comfortable traditions and lament the passing of England Brothers and GE because of an image we want to maintain? Or do we see ourselves as a part of Jesus’ mission to Judea (North St.), Samaria (the jail), and the uttermost parts of the world (heroin addict, homosexual, and everything else that is “unclean”)? These are serious questions that every generation of Christians must ask. Seeing ourselves as part of Jesus’ mission might challenge the image we want to project as a church, but we have to ask ourselves the question, what is more important? And what does Jesus want from us?
Thank you for allowing my son, Ian, to preach last Sunday. I was afraid I could be accused of nepotism, but I felt it was that important. I had sensed a call to the ministry by the time I was his age, and began my seminary studies at his age. I don’t expect he will ever find his calling to pastor in Pittsfield but, at my age now (64), I know someone of the next generation will. Pittsfield will be their mission field. It’s crucial that we begin to make room for them now. Because, before you know it, we will be handing them the keys.
Pastor Tom Bridgman