Lord’s Day Message: The Beginning of Vision
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples. and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.
We turned a major corner in the church year this week. This past Friday was the celebration of The Epiphany, which commemorates the revealing of Jesus to the world. Most Christian traditions link this celebration with the coming of the Magi, which is why Jan had us sing “We Three Kings” as part of our worship this morning. But really, the function of The Epiphany in the church year is to bring us out of the beginning that is Advent, with its focus on the birth of Jesus and into the public ministry of Jesus that began when he was around 30. This gives the church from early January until the end of March to really look deeply into the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and finally the journey to the Cross leading up to Easter.
But the corner we, as an individual church need to turn beginning this week means laying before us the most significant challenge I can think of putting before any church. How you respond to the challenge that is going to unfold over the next six weeks will likely set the entire course of our ministry together. I chose this series on beginnings because I knew that mid-January would be the end of our first six months together. To this point we have been getting to know and hopefully trust one another; to figuratively “kick each other’s tires” and get used to the feel of what it is like to be together.
Now we want to begin to ask some hard questions and make some serious decisions. That’s why it is going to take six weeks to place this challenge before you. This morning is nothing more than the introduction, and because this is communion Sunday and the Worship Team is back with us after their Christmas break and Sunday School is starting back up today, I have only about 10 minutes in which to pique your curiosity.
Please take the time to dialog with me over the next several weeks, whether in person, or via email, or on the phone, because we’re going to be asking fundamental questions about who we are as a church and where we’re headed, and it is vital that we understand each other so that together we can make the decisions we need to make to set this church on a course that will honor God as we move forward.
In the King James Version, Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” Our modern New International Version puts it this way, “Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.”
The question I keep hearing as I go from church to church and talk with other pastors, and really the number one question I hear right here at PCC is always some version of, “Why has the church seemingly imploded here at the beginning of the 21st century?” Why has the air gone out of the balloon? What happened to all the evangelism and discipleship programs we used to do? How come people aren’t excited to be part of a local congregation these days? How come the church seems to have run out of gas? What happened to that sense we all had that we were going someplace really important?
We will find the answers in a mid-sized city built on a hill. It could be Hartford, the only difference being that the city overlooks a sea and not a river. It could be San Francisco, except that this city is the seat of regional government. It is a place with wonderful cultural centers. It has a great theater and a marvelous government hall that may be the finest ever built. If you are seated among the State Senators, when someone is standing at the podium speaking you are treated to a view of the main commercial street with the docks and the Seashore just several hundred yards behind. The city also has one of the finest libraries in the country, if not the world, and beautiful homes that radiate out from the center of town on broad, tree-lined streets.
Sadly, just like Hartford, this city is also a cosmopolitan hotbed of prostitution, legal and illegal gaming, drug abuse, and collusion between government and religious leaders, convinced of their own self-importance. Just like Hartford, there are plenty of Christian churches just a few miles out from the city center, but there are not many who believe there’s anything of any value to be done in the city itself. It is too lost, too corrupt, to large, and has too many needs to really do anything to change the situation.
The city I’m talking about, of course, is Ephesus, in South Western Turkey. What happened there will give us six quick clues to how we can gain the vision we need to see where God is going and go there with him. If you’re not already there, turn to Acts 19, starting at verse 1.
This first sentence tells us so much. “While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples.”
You see, it wasn’t so much that no one had ever preached at Ephesus. In fact, both Apollos and Paul had been there before. But the first time Paul went there he didn’t stay. Instead, he left Apollos to preach there and he himself had gone on to preach in several other towns in the Anatolian Plain, what is today Central Turkey. But verse 1 tells us that Apollos himself had moved on and gone to Corinth, Greece, and Paul thought, “I’d better go and find out what’s been going on in Ephesus.
So the first thing for us as a church to see is that vision comes when you go on mission. The city of Ephesus was right there, close at hand. Paul was only about 350 miles away. That may seem like a long distance, but it is just the same distance as from here to Washington, DC, and his heart was drawn to the City. We here in Windsor don’t have just one Ephesus nearby. And life in the 21st Century moves a whole lot faster than the three miles an hour one could travel on foot or by caravan in the First Century. We here in Windsor have not one, but ten major cities within 300 miles of us. Boston, Providence, Springfield, Hartford, New Haven, Albany, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington all lie within that distance.
Take your choice, church. You may say, “we are ill equipped. We can’t afford to mount a mission trip to most of those places.” Okay, then let me ask you a question: when you need a hospital, where do you go? When you want to see a major symphony orchestra play or go to a good art museum, when you need to engage with state services or go to a really good restaurant, where do you go? If your answer is Hartford, then since you have the time to take from the city and use what the city has to offer, when’s the last time you gave to the city? It isn’t 300 miles from Poquonock to Hartford. It is 11 miles. You want this church to come alive? Engage with the City. Give back to the City. Go on mission to the City. Sending a check will not do. vision comes when you go on mission.
Next, vision comes when you are in community. Verse 1 says that when Paul went to Ephesus he found some disciples there. There are well over 100 churches with Hartford addresses. You won’t have any trouble finding a church in Hartford to engage with. In fact, most of the churches of Hartford would be shocked if a suburban church came to them and said, “we want to be part of what is going on in Hartford, and we’d like to bless you and be blessed by you. How would you like to become our sister church in the City?” Building community like that isn’t hard. Imagine how much more connected we would be to the city if every week we were had their prayer list and they had ours. You say you don’t know what needs to be done in Hartford or how to address the need? When you decide to go to Hartford on mission, find some disciples there. Vision comes when you are in community.
Vision also comes when you share your faith. Look at verse 2. Paul asked the disciples he found in Ephesus a simple question, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” Christians are no different than anyone else in one respect: we tend to want to hang out with people who look and sound like us. That’s the biggest obstacle to growth you ever saw. You want to get involved in a mission that will teach you nothing? Then go out and find a church in Hartford that is an older middle-aged group of white reformed protestants. You’ll have everything in common with them. You’ll gripe about the same things and embrace the same ways of worshiping. If you compare notes, you’ll probably discover that you know some of the same people. It is only 11 miles, after all. But go and find a group of disciples where you have to ask them about their views on the ministry of the Holy Spirit, go find a black church, an Hispanic church, a Pentecostal church, a poor church, a young church, a church that is renting space in a storefront or school and doesn’t have its own building and you will be entering into the adventure of a lifetime as a church. The only caveat is: go find some disciples. Go find some people who care more about Jesus than they do about being with people just like them.
The next three verses are a wonderful interchange between Paul and the disciples he found in Ephesus:
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
“No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
“Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
“John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.”
You know what that is called? That’s called having a dialog. Vision comes when you talk about the important issues of your faith and life. Vision comes when you are a learner. Most important, vision comes when you dialog about Jesus. If each of you made just one intentional appointment each week where you were going to have a discussion with someone about their faith and yours, the things you would collectively take away from that would radically alter our life together. Vision comes when you dialog.
Verse six says, “When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” There are really two things to note here. We began by saying that Vision comes when you go on mission. The important thing about that is the hands-on nature of it. Paul placed his hands on these disciples.
When John wrote his first letter he began it this way, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” You will never gain vision as long as all you do is listen to sermons and go to Bible studies and attend conferences. Vision comes when you see, when you touch, when you handle the Word of Life. The text says they began to speak in tongues and prophesy. Yes, but that was a by-product. The ministry of the Holy Spirit was unleashed when Paul went to the City, and entered into community, and shared his faith, and dialoged with them and saw and touched and handled.
There it is. That’s God’s solution to the problem. That is God’s answer to how to revitalize churches and how to revitalize the faith of the people in them. And just to further entice us, the writer of the book of Acts adds just one more little thing. He says, speaking about the disciples Paul found in Ephesus, “There were about twelve men in all.” How many apostles did Jesus have? Twelve. How many patriarchs were there in ancient Israel? Twelve. Not only has he told us how to really get a church going, how to really give a church vision, he’s told us how to organize the effort. Jesus changed the world beginning with just twelve men. His plan was simple. Go out and find twelve people, train them to be disciples, and then unleash them on the world. Vision comes when you use the Master’s Plan.
That, Beloved, is the beginning of vision.