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. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.
But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.
(Acts 8:1b-13 ESV)
Have you ever accidentally broken a thermometer and observed what happens? Okay, okay, now I’m showing my age. I don’t mean a digital thermometer. I mean a good old glass thermometer with mercury in it. I guess they’re probably illegal these days. But let me tell you what happens anyway. It is so cool.
When you look at the thermometer whole, the silver-colored liquid in it seems to emanate from the bulb at the bottom. Wrap your hands tightly around the bulb and the liquid will expand (because of your body heat), and register a higher temperature. But break the glass, and the liquid pours out on the table or floor. Now it should be relatively simple to mop it up. Nope.
What mercury does when it hits the table? It scatters in all directions. The little bits seem so small as to be almost unnoticeable. You can push the balls together and they’ll become larger balls. But the only way to get the stuff off the table is to scoop it up. You cannot use a paper towel on mercury. You’ll never be rid of it that way.
So it is with the church. You would think that if you keep us all in one place we’d do a lot of good with and for each other. But actually what happens is just like the mercury in the thermometer: heat is applied, and our temperature simply rises.
Churches that enjoy great fellowship together and wonderful times of worship invariably want to keep what they’ve got just exactly the way it is. They love what they are feeling and experiencing. And it feels safe. And it seems that God is moving in powerful ways. And the temperature is rising. But the pressure is from within, and ultimately, because we are sinful, broken beings, the result is that there is no place for the liquid to go. The church that stays together for any real length of time is putting a pressure on its walls that the structure was never meant to withstand. The people who live in that situation will ultimately get crabby and out of sorts, and will finally drift away or simply age out, wondering what ever happened to the church they knew.
But what happens if someone comes along and breaks the church? I don’t mean a troublemaker who comes and stirs things up from the inside. I mean, what happens when persecution comes upon the church because of Jesus?
Let’s be clear here. I’m not talking about the kind of “persecution” so many of our churches love to think they are under because of some political stand they’ve taken. The church with an agenda is simply the church in the thermometer turning up its own heat. It’ll burst, but for all the wrong reasons. The persecution I’m talking about is persecution because you love Jesus and love the people Jesus loved. A church that starts to take Jesus seriously by loving mercy, doing justice, and walking humbly with God will soon find it is getting shot at from all directions.
And when persecution comes because the church loves Jesus, they will try to break you up. And when the walls break and your heart breaks and the fellowship is scattered, do not despair. The bond of Christ is strongest when we are forced to scatter. And like the mercury poured out on the floor, we will seek each other out in the corners, in the small places, among the dirty, the needy, the broken. At first it will look like the church has disappeared. But a little sweeping will reveal small bits becoming little clusters and little clusters becoming larger groupings again.
The church was designed to scatter. That’s when it does its best work.