What can stop the work of God in our world? What army, government or law can block the work of the Spirit? What prison, threat or punishment will silence the voice of God through his people?
Jesus sacrificed and triumphed. Sin has been defeated, Christ is alive and his Spirit is at work in our world!
I have to confess there are days when the reality of Christ’s victory and the present work of the Spirit drift from my heart and mind. I forget “to whom I belong and whom I serve” (Acts 27:23), and view life from too human a perspective.
Acts 5 reorients us and reminds us who rules this world and to what mission he calls us.
The chapter relates the inspiring and amusing account of how the disciples are imprisoned for preaching, healing and generally living out the kingdom of God. The Lord miraculously “open[s] the doors of the jail and br[ings] them out” (Acts 5:19). Then, he tells the disciples to get back to their appointed work of preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.
Jail break & public disturbance
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Luke writes, “On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to” (Acts 5:24, emphasis added).
I think we know what this will lead to! Outrage, jealousy and fear from the religious leadership.
The high priest and his leaders want to kill the disciples for their insubordination and disobedience, yet the Holy Spirit is at work in one of their own.
“But one member, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, who was an expert in religious law and respected by all the people, stood up…. ‘So my advice is, leave these men alone. Let them go. If they are planning and doing these things merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. But if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God!’” (Acts 5:34, 38–39, NLT).
Gamaliel is speaking prophetically without knowing it! The Holy Spirit is on the move and nothing human leadership can orchestrate will thwart the work. When God moves through his people, the powers of this world are helpless to stop him.
The disciples don’t need human best practices, political connections, advertising campaigns or strategic alliances to fulfill their mandate. They need to live in the power of the Holy Spirit and minister in obedience to the Spirit’s leading.
Simple but not easy.
A Spirit-led movement
A few years ago, Mennonite Brethren leaders began to ask God to give us a greater awareness of the Holy Spirit. We prayed that we would become so consumed by the person and work of Jesus that our desire to know him, follow him, shape our lives around his teaching and be led by his Spirit would mark us as a people.
We prayed for the outpouring of God’s Spirit on our churches. We prayed that we would live as disciples whose spirits are open to conviction, quick to repent, slow to anger and courageous in following Jesus.
We prayed for humility in leadership, faith in action and unity in mission.
We prayed that Mennonite Brethren across Canada would join in a move of God shaped not by human hands, but led by the Holy Spirit.
This begs the question, what does a “move of God” look like? How do we know if our prayers are being answered? Alan Hirsch, in his seminal work The Forgotten Ways, describes Howard Snyder’s characteristics of movements:
A thirst for renewal:
A holy discontent with what exists precipitates a recovery of the vitality and patterns of the earlychurch.
A new stress on the work of the Spirit:
The work of the Spirit is seen not only as important in the past but also as an experience in the present.
An institutional-charismatic tension:
In almost every case of renewal, tensions within existing structures will arise….
A concern for being a countercultural community:
Movements call the church to a more radical commitment and a more active tension with the world.
Nontraditional or nonordained leadership:
Renewal movements are often led by people with no recognized formal leadership status in the church. Spiritual authority is the key. Furthermore, women are noticeably more active in movements.
Ministry to the poor:
Movements almost always involve people at the grassroots level. They actively involve the masses (the uneducated or socially outcast) and often start as mission on the edges and among the poor (St. Francis, the Wesleys, Salvation Army, etc.).
Energy and dynamism:
New movements have the ability to excite and enlist others as leaders and participants.
Movements are birthed when God’s people pursue Christ above all else – as witnessed in the early church and throughout history.
It is this thirst for the presence of Christ and obedience to his leading that often creates tension between what is and what is developing, a tension between existing structures and positional authorities and new, fluid, relational processes and informal leadership.
The old struggles as the new explodes on the scene. In this struggle, we find our way forward, experiencing the joy and birth pains of a new day.
A new stirring
Jesus preached a new kingdom, a new move of the Spirit that thrilled and excited many while striking fear in the hearts of those who saw what they had to lose rather than what Jesus was inviting them to gain.
We are living in a time when the Holy Spirit is stirring his people to follow Jesus in new and unconventional ways.
I am convinced that the way forward lies in our willingness to build on the strengths of our history while following Jesus into an unknown and uncharted future. The goal is not to reclaim the past but to learn from it as we apply the timeless truth of God’s Word in timely ways to our current contexts through the leading of the Spirit.
The future of the Mennonite Brethren church in Canada does not lie in our programs, our governance or our institutions.
Our future is dependent on our passionate followership of Jesus Christ, our willingness to apply the Word of God as the final authority for life and truth, and our obedience to the leading of the Spirit.
Our credibility does not lie in our expertise, our education or our financial resources. These are tools God uses in his mission for his glory. Instead, our reputation is bound up in the gospel we live and preach.
As Mennonite Brethren, we value community, but we will only experience deep community in the common pursuit of the mission Jesus has given us. Hirsch reminds us that a faith community’s “energies are primarily directed outward and forward.”
This past Easter, I was reminded of the amazing, personal work of the Spirit. People came to saving faith in Jesus in C2C Network church plants in Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver with one church reporting more than 40 decisions to follow Christ. This is just a small sampling of God’s work in Canada.
The apostles were convinced of their message – they had great clarity on their source of authority and whom they obeyed. After being flogged, “The[y] left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus. And every day, in the Temple and from house to house, they continued to teach and preach this message: ‘Jesus is the Messiah’” (Acts 5:41–42, NLT).
My prayer is that the challenges we face in following Jesus will cause us to rejoice in God’s work in and through us. May each of our faith communities lean deeply into relationship with Christ and risk-taking obedience to the Spirit’s leading. May we be courageous in mission as we declare, “Jesus is our Saviour and King.”
—Willy Reimer is executive director of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. He lives in Calgary with his wife Gwen.