Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Visiting a 1st Century Church

One of my favorite parts of the Bible is the book of Acts. I have always loved to read stories of the early church. I love to trace the flow of Paul's missionary journeys. As I think about his journeys, I am often captured by the thought of what it would have been like to minister and preach the gospel in the early church. I have wandered what it would be like to be in a town for several weeks, see people come to faith, and then leave that town, trusting in God to complete the work in their life. This week, I think I have experienced a glimpse of what it might have been like for the Apostle Paul. I say that, not as if I have done it, but I have seen it done.

The Christians I have met at the different villages are all first generation Christians. But it is more than that. I have met first generation Christians in many places in the world, including the United States. But these people are first generations Christians who often have been left to themselves, their Bible, and the Holy Spirit. Many of them have heard the gospel, believed, and then have been forced into taking on leadership as a baby Christian. Take for instance, the Minefield Village that I wrote about on Monday. A church was planted there after the gospel was preached and several hundred responded in faith. Then they were baptized. And then most of the leaders had to leave town. One man, Sareth Duong, moved there to teach them for one month. But then he had to leave as well. After hearing this story, the feelings toward the churches that Paul writes about come to life.

Paul spent about three weeks preaching the gospel in the city of Thessalonica. And amid much persecution, he saw many give their life to Jesus. A church was planted. But then he was forced to leave town. But the memories of the people in this town would not leave his memory. In fact, just a few months later, he writes the book of 1 Thessalonians in which he says,
"But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you--I, Paul, again and again--but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy." (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20)
Paul continues . . .
"Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain. But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you--for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord." (1 Thessalonians 3:1-8)
After seeing the new believers here in Cambodia, I can better understand what Paul was referring to in his letter to the Thessalonians. As Sareth and Paul Bradley, the Cadence leaders come into one town and preach the gospel to these military men, they leave trusting that God would sustain the men, women, & children. I am probably being a bit sarcastic, but the level of communication in this country isn't that far removed from what the Apostle Paul went through. In order to hear how these churches and ministries are doing, they need to go visit them. They can't Skype, as I just did with my family. They don't even have a good email option. Most of them do not even have electricity.  It is like I have stepped back a few hundred years. But in that time travel, I am seeing a place that is completely dependent upon the Lord.

I listened to the testimony of one of our medical doctors tonight. His name is Sem Sitha. He shared that when he came to believe in Jesus, the first thing he wanted to do was to plant a church. That's just crazy. Become a believer and then start a church. But as you read the NT, that's what Epaphras does in the planting of the church in Colossae. Maybe we are the ones backward. Maybe we have subtly created obstacles (dare I say excuses) to our service that we can't do such and such because we don't know enough. Maybe they have something with their radical trust in the Lord. I have to think that is what the early church did. I have to think that is what the Thessalonians and Colossians did as their churches were planted. And maybe it is what we need to learn from them. Maybe by stepping into their world, I have gone from a teacher to a student. And maybe that is what I need more than ever!

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