Today is the first Sunday after Epiphany which means “manifestation” or “showing forth”. We are celebrating the divinity of Jesus and acknowledging its manifestation. The first time when the three kings came to witness his birth in Bethlehem, and the second time when he is baptized by John. Today we think upon the manifestation of Jesus’ divinity and his baptism is truly the beginning of his ministry and God’s affirmation that Jesus is his Son and the Messiah, but I also wanted to address the question of where this church is going and where we really want to be. I intend to do both, and it may be a bit unorthodox. What does the Holy Spirit represent for us, today and what is it we want for our church? What is it that we desire for our church? What are your expectation of the church and who’s job is it anyways to fulfill those expectations? When we say we want to grow our church do we mean we want a large church with multiple ministries a youth pastor and a local focus. Do we want a megachurch with thousands of members, several pastors and worldwide ministry with modern Christian music but no personal identity, now I am not saying that their worship is less sincere or their faith any less than mine, but when there are thousands of people to minister to how many can you actually be in relationship with, and ministry is about relationship? God is about relationship; He desires to be in relationship with us. He loved us so much that he sent his only Son to die for us. That’s how bad he wants a relationship with us. So when we ask God to grow our church, what is it we really want? What are we really after, and what does this have to do with the church in Ephesus and Paul?
Well it says that “Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples” Acts 19:1. Not only that but it tells us how many, “altogether there were about twelve of them”Act 19:7. Not thousands or even hundreds, not even fifty. Just twelve, and I don’t even think it was twelve because when someone uses the word about, they really mean on a good day there were twelve, but I don’t know, so Paul had a good day and twelve followers, which if memory serves me, a certain man from Nazareth also started out with that many disciples. Megachurches and even large churches all had humble beginnings, like Jesus, like the church at Ephesus. They started out small, Jesus preached in people’s homes in the beginning, in the synagogue when he could. In the street when he had to, on the side of a mountain. Wherever people gathered. If Jesus had only preached in the synagogue, few would have heard him, the Pharisee and Sadducee would have had him killed quietly and no one would have cared. If Jesus had not been baptized through repentance, and received the holy spirit, we would never have been forgiven our sins, but Jesus knew and he told John “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” Matthew 3:15-17. The only man ever who did not need to ask for forgiveness because he committed no sin, yet he knew that it was necessary, he knew that he would have to carry the sins of the world and that repentance is the first step in redemption and ultimately salvation, our salvation.
Paul knew this when he asked “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” Acts 19:2-6. It’s not enough that we repent, we also must receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells us this “what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” Acts 1:4-5. Even without the Holy Spirit the disciples in Ephesus still had faith in Jesus, surrounded by people who did not believe in God, in fact the majority of the people believed in Artemis, they had built one of the most famous temples of that time in their city dedicated to her and were renowned as practitioners of dark magic.
So what does Paul and his congregation do after receiving the Holy Spirit, “He entered the synagogue and for three months spoke out boldly, and argued persuasively about the kingdom of God” Acts 19:8. No dice the Jews in Ephesus were not having anything to do with Paul, his people or the Gospel. So what does Paul and his twelve do, this tiny church surrounded by people with a totally different theology, who couldn’t care less about God or Jesus, had in fact never heard the Gospel. They were not only spiritually invested in their way of life but financially as well. Their entire economy was based on Artemis and the sale of magical spell books. Why hadn’t they heard about the Gospel though, I mean there were twelve who had, who knew the significance of what Jesus had done and yet they did not tell the good news to anyone else until Paul came, why? Fear, laziness, apathy, or maybe they just didn’t want to rock the boat. Whatever the reason Paul was on fire when the Jewish community stubbornly “refused to believe and spoke evil of the Way before the congregation, he left them, taking the disciples with him, and argued daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord” Acts 19:9-10.
Daily, for two years they preach. Paul does not tell us what the church at Ephesus was doing prior to his arrival, I don’t think anyone cares. Maybe they were preaching daily, maybe they were doing everything right and were just missing the fire that Holy Spirit provides us if we ask, and that’s the key to everything. Jesus tells us in Matthew “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” Matthew 7:7-8. The answer is within us, because we have received the Holy Spirit, but what about your neighbor, your best friend, the cashier at store, the teller at your bank, your family. The first thing that Paul asks the Ephesians “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” Acts 19:2 You have to ask the simple questions first, before you ask where are we going and how will we get there.
I don’t want a huge impersonal church, don’t get me wrong every Pastor and every congregation wants to see their church grow, wants to see the good news spread to the four corners of the globe but it doesn’t take much to make an enormous difference. One man, changed the world, one man redeemed the world. Twelve disciples, spread the news over the world. That little church in Ephesus, those twelve ordinary people, like you and me in the span of two years spread the gospel “so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord” Acts 19:10. One small church and twelve ordinary, everyday people, filled with the Holy Spirit preaching the gospel can reach an entire continent, can change the course of history. The question can never be what do we want from the church, but where do we want to take the church. Let us remember that like John the Baptist we should “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”. Jesus will take care of the rest. Amen.