What if our faith was as real and powerful as the faith of the Apostle Paul, Peter, James and John, Mary and Lydia, Priscilla and Aquilla? What if our experience of church today was as exciting as those in the upper room at Pentecost, as action-packed as Barnabas and Silas’s missionary journeys throughout Asia Minor, as faith-stretching as Peter stepping out onto the water, or as jolting as Paul being knocked flat on his back and blinded by the light of Christ? What if the Spirit’s guidance was as real and direct in our lives as when Paul was led to Macedonia by a vision in the night? What if our message today was bold enough to “turn the world upside down” as we pledge allegiance to a different King and Kingdom than the rest of those around us (Acts 17:7)?
We are accustomed to approaching the New Testament as detached observers feeling far removed from the original events, or as students picking apart the text as an academic exercise. We study the Bible to learn about God, about Jesus, about the church and about the power of Holy Spirit. But many of us will never enter into the story, become real participants in the activity of God, and let our imaginations be reshaped by the Apostolic life we read about in the New Testament.
Awhile back I had the privilege of leading some college students through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. As I prepared for our first evening together, these thoughts were swimming through my head. All of these students grew up in church and now attend a Christian college where they are constantly discussing the Bible, taking classes on it, hearing it preached in chapel, and reading it in their personal devotions. As with all Christian colleges, the Bible is their primary textbook.
But I wanted to approach Paul’s letter to the Ephesians differently. I wanted to recapture the exciting situation into which this epistle was written. I wanted us to remember that these were personal letters sent by a real missionary-pastor to real people living in a real place facing real challenges. I wanted to let these powerful words be heard afresh, wrapping our minds around the potent message contained within. I wanted us to cultivate an Apostolic Imagination as we dug into Ephesians.
I began our journey through Ephesians by unpacking 4 aspects of an Apostolic Imagination: apostolic purpose, power, passion and participation.
1. Apostolic Purpose: In a general sense, all who follow Christ are apostles — meaning “sent out ones.” Jesus’s marching orders to the church was to “GO make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28) and “You will receive power…and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts. 1). People infused with an apostolic imagination live with the conviction that their main purpose on earth, since surrendering their lives to Christ, is the spreading of the good news in whatever ways they can.
Do we view this as our greatest purpose in life?
2. Apostolic Power: The story of the early church is filled with stories of God’s supernatural power on display. The apostles saw the lame walk, the blind see, the demon-posesssed liberated, and the sick healed. Jesus had told his disciples that “anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). Paul gives testimony that his ministry was more than words: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Cor. 2:4). Later he adds: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Cor. 4:20). People infused with an apostolic imagination live with the conviction that they have the very same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead living in them.
Do we really believe we have this kind of power available to us in our daily lives?
3. Apostolic Passion: Busyness and distraction are a cancer eating away the vitality of the contemporary church in the west. We are running after many things, balancing a plate full of unsatisfying side dishes and no main course. Often faith is just one more dessert on the side, or the icing on the cake. When we enter the story of the disciples following Jesus and the apostles bringing the gospel across the Roman empire, we realize that they were either all-in or not. Jesus was clear that following him meant denying our own desires and pursuits in order to make the kingdom our only treasure. Paul put it even more starkly: “I have been crucified with Christ. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Jesus said the kingdom life was worth selling everything for. James warns against being double-minded in our affections, and Jesus said we ought to “Seek first the Kingdom” and everything else would fall into place. People infused with an apostolic imagination have no greater passion and treasure than the things of God. They are learning more and more how to set their minds of things that are above. All earthly pleasures and treasures pale in comparison to the joy of knowing Christ.
Is Christ and the Kingdom our constant obsession?
4. Apostolic Participation: Finally, as I mentioned at the beginning, the key to cultivating an apostolic imagination and moving beyond being a passive student examining the text in a detached way, is to become an active participant in the unfolding story within the text. We are all invited to let our own lives become swept up into the activity of God that reached it’s climax in the life and ministry of Jesus in the Gospels, and then join the rest of the apostles and early church as we live our own lives in the continuation of the exciting adventure began in Acts and alluded to in the Epistles. The church was born in Acts 2, but the ever-expanding mission of the church didn’t end with Paul on house arrest in Rome where Acts ends. Today we are writing the next chapter under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as we let our lives be shaped by the exciting chapters that have come before. We are not students of the Bible; we are participants in the unfolding story.
Do we approach the Bible mainly as academics or participants in the story?
These are some of the ways we can begin to cultivate an Apostolic Imagination. As we do, we will begin to experience God in ways we have never dreamed of. The stories of Peter and Paul will no longer sound like ancient fairy tales from a far off land, but a typical day in the exciting life of a modern day disciple.