May 2024

The Birth of the Early Church 

Taken from a Red Rock News Article The Birth of the Early Church Rev. Dona Johnson | May 26, 2024 After the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the eleven Apostles, the first Christian Church was formed—in its infancy. The charismatic proclamation of the Apostles expanded the nucleus of the Pentecost crowd from 120 Jewish people to well over 3,000. And with the help of the Holy Spirit, more people came to faith and were equipped. These people formed the building blocks of the early church. Now the Christian Church was not formed overnight. The early church began as a movement within Judaism, another sect of Judaism and was made up of Jewish-Christians. During Jesus’ ministry, Jesus only preached to Jews, the lost sheep of Israel and his disciples were instructed to not approach Gentiles or Samaritans.          The early Jewish-Christians continued to worship in the Temple, followed the Jewish hours of daily prayer and they also followed the traditional Jewish calendar. Church history scholar Justo Gonzalez, author of Worship in the Early Church writes, “Thus, the first Judeo-Christians did not belong to a new religion, but rather saw themselves as a particular group within Judaism.” But by the end of the first century, more Jewish Christians were being expelled out of the synagogues for their proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection—Jesus as the true Messiah. As tensions grew, the number of Gentile followers were increasing and thus, the number of Judeo Christians began to decline. The early Christians began gathering on the first day of the week, Sunday which was called the Lord’s Day to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. The main reason that worship was changed from the Passover to Sunday was to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, which took place on Sunday.          As the Christian population grew beyond the boundaries of Judaism, more Gentiles became followers and the Jewish-Christians continued to preach and teach the resurrection of Jesus Christ tensions were heightened with the Roman authorities. From 100-300 A.D. severe discrimination, segregation and persecution took place among the early Christians. They were blamed for fires, epidemics and floods. They were perceived as stubborn for they refused to worship gods and pay homage to idols. When Jews converted to the Christian movement they were shunned by their neighbors and cast out by their families. There was an intense surveillance of Christians and their activities were often reported to the Roman authorities. All of this was brought on by the political factions that existed between Rome and the Sanhedrin.         For the first three hundred years early Christians gathered in houses to worship. The house churches “kat oikon” are mentioned throughout Paul’s letters. Scholar Wayne Meeks author of “The First Urban Christians,” states, “The home was the basic cell of mission. The conversion of entire households took place. The house as church afforded privacy, intimacy and stability.” As the Christian population increased, churches were built for the larger communities.         Moving forward, after the Great Persecution where Christians were tortured, killed and their properties confiscated, in 313 Emperor Constantine came to a decision that would change the history of the church, the ekklesia. He put an end to persecutions ordering the return of the properties of churches. More importantly, Constantine’s edict proclaimed freedom of religion for all, especially for Christians. And eventually Christianity became the official religion of the empire. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the perseverance of the first Christians through all kinds of travail and upheaval birthed Christ’s Church. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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The Spirit Fills The Church With Life And Power

The Spirit Fills The Church With Life and Power Taken from a Red Rock News Article (May 17, 2024) Rev. Dona Johnson | May 19, 2024 On the fiftieth day after Jesus’ victory over sin and  death—the Day of Pentecost, from his throne on  high, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to mark, claim and  indwell the people of God, all of those who  expressed allegiance to Jesus (Acts 2). And this  underscores the one demarcation of every  Christian who believes in the one true and living  God who has given them his Spirit—the Holy Spirit.   We are told on that day that all the Apostles  were gathered in one place and a violent rush of  wind from heaven swept over them and tongues of  fire landed on each of them. Now the Jews in  Jerusalem were to a large extent pilgrims from  many regions attending the Feast of Pentecost.  Suddenly the Apostle’s began to speak in many  indigenous languages and dialects and many in the  crowd who had gathered heard these new spiritual  utterances in their own language and were amazed  at the exuberant and joyful praise. Those who were  gathered knew without a doubt, that something  strangely new had entered the world—the  supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. The same  Spirit Jesus had promised to send his disciples in  John 14:26.   In The Acts of The Apostles, author R. B.  Rackham states, “Every new beginning in thought  or life is inevitably accompanied by disturbance.  There is the struggle with the old, and the re adjustment to the new, environment.” And  eventually, this new beginning wore itself a deep  channel in the spiritual life of the church. The  “gospel” of Acts is the gift of the Spirit. And this is  the distinguishing mark of every Christian. The Spirit is given to individuals, indwells in them and is  their very life. There is one Spirit, and all who  receive the Spirit become one spiritual body, the   church. The fruit of the Spirit is unity and fellowship  which replaces individualism. It fills the church with  life, power and starts it on its course. It also carries forth the proclamation of the death and  resurrection of Jesus Christ, through making  disciples and baptizing them in the name of the  Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the Trinity.   Prior to the Day of Pentecost, the twelve  apostles were basically the church and the  repositories of all authority. But they alone were  unequal to the task of teaching, preaching and  reaching all nations. Due to the Spirit, now other  men and women were raised up with new ideas,  insights and prophetic discernments, and the early  church, once regarded as a nucleus of twelve  apostles expands its leadership and begins to grow.   By the end of the first century, scholars  estimate there were approximately 7,000  Christians. After Jesus’ death and resurrection in 30  A.D., those who believed this truth gathered  together in clusters of house churches. The Spirit  created a new energy and excitement causing  these new believers to give their lives to the  apostle’s teaching. They worshiped, communed and prayed together. They were of one heart and  mind and had meals together. Some of the  members of this new movement sold their  possessions and property and generously gave to  one another when a need arose. And Scripture tells  us that the Holy Spirit added to their numbers  daily—thousands (Acts 2:42-45; 4:30-37).  For those of us who live in Sedona, seeking  the spiritual is our claim to fame: astral planes, quantum consciousness, exploring the mystical  with drugs and of course crystals charged with  vortex energy (see Sedona Chamber of Commerce).  Yes, people come here seeking these things because they are spiritually hungry. And it was  really no different in Jesus’ day or when the  churched was birthed on the Day of Pentecost. As  Christians, we know by faith that the supernatural  power that is given to us is not found in a vortex or  a crystal but is found in the third person of the  Trinity—the Holy Spirit. It is one the “true” spiritual  power (the tour de force) in all the world. Nothing  else compares to its power. And so we praise Jesus,  who sends us the Holy Spirit to multiply our efforts,  sustain our lives and ministry on earth until Jesus,  our Savior and Redeemer returns! Amen. 

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Jesus Prays For Unity Not Certainty 

Faith Inspires Faith Taken from my Red Rock News Article (5/10/24) Rev. Dona Johnson | May 12, 2024 One of the most powerful prayers in the New Testament and for that matter, all of Scripture can be found in John 17. It is called the “High Priestly Prayer” and for good reason. It is packed with so many truths that one can only grasp fragments of them. It is a deeply intimate prayer. It depicts Jesus’ greatest desire that Father and Son and Jesus and his disciples may all be one. Jesus prays, “It is for them (his disciples) that I pray and not for the world, but for those who you have given me.” Jesus did not pray that the disciples should be taken out of the world, he didn’t pray that they find escape; he prayed that they might endure and have victory. Christianity was never meant to withdraw from the world. A life withdrawn from the world would have seemed to Jesus sadly a truncated version of the faith he died to bring. No, he insisted Christians be totally immersed in everyday life. Although it is true that Christians are not of the world, it is also true that their Christianity is to be lived out in the world. And living out one’s Christian faith does not necessarily mean a comfy life. When lived out fully it requires us to be pruned of our vices, it requires us to stay with our suffering and learn from it and to trust the cycle of death and resurrection that is on-going in the life of faith. However, we go to great efforts to protect ourselves from painful situations.        A few years ago in the Christian Century a writer reminded us of something C.S. Lewis preached at Oxford University on October 22, 1939. Hitler had invaded Poland only six weeks earlier, and England was at war. The college students at Oxford were frightened–many of them would face death soon, and many would die. Here is what Lewis told them: “If we had foolish unchristian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven here on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are now disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.”       While we live in uncertain times, Jesus doesn’t pray for more certainty, he prays for a unity that rests on the common basic attitude of abiding in his love. This is where true safety and protection abound. Leon Morris writes, “It is a divine unity, where all wills are bowing in the same direction, all affections burning with the same flame, all aims directed at the same end—one blessed harmony of love.” It is a unity that by nature is more difficult for us—unity of heart, mind and will.       The prayerful words of Jesus still ring true today, be one with God and one with each other. So when we are tempted to conform to the roughness of this world—to the untruths, to the politicization of the Gospel, when we are tempted to join the corruption and deception in order to win at all cost and right the injustices in this world, God calls us to let go of any anger or revenge that rejects his command to love and forgive. Return every day to the love and forgiveness of God and rest and relax in the security of that love. And then let this love that you feel deep in your bones help you be love, too. Let that unifying love motivate you to do the hard work of figuring out what God wants out of us Christian people. Let love, not hate; good, not evil, guide us. May each of us go forward unified in God’s eternal promise in Jesus Christ to redeem us and the world that already belongs him. Amen.

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Friendship With God Is Its Own Reward 

Friendship With God Is Its Own Reward Taken from a Red Rock News Article (5/3/24) Rev. Dona Johnson | Jan 21, 2024 When many of us think of Jesus, we don’t think of  him as having a friendship with us. Maybe because  we think of God as holy and untouchable. Or  maybe we think a friendship with God would be  way too informal and casual. Or maybe we have  attachment issues and find it hard to befriend God  as a heavenly Father. Wherever you are, in John  15:13-15, Jesus, with great love in his heart for his  disciples called them friends. “No one has greater  love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s  friends. You are my friends if you do what I  command you. I do not call you servants any  longer, because the servant does not know what  the master is doing; but I have called you friends…”         Jesus goes one step further and affirms his  love for his disciples when he says, “I no longer call  you servants but I call you friends.” Jesus is  referring to servants who have no rights or access  into the presence and royal courts of their master.  Instead, Jesus declares the disciples as his friends.  It’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t call  himself a friend to the disciples. They are friends of  his and not the other way around. Jesus lays out  that they are not on equal ground but subordinate  to him. What does this type of friendship look like?  In Jesus’ understanding of friendship it is distinct  from a modern western understanding of friends  as equals. There is no equity between Jesus and his   friends and yet he dies for those who are  subordinate to him.   Jesus understood all too well what laid ahead for  his disciples. And he wanted them to grow in love  for each other, a love that would sacrifice,  encourage and bind and unite through all the  struggles they would face. God chose them for this  specific time and place to take on his mission. They  did not choose God, nor did they choose their  mission. And it is the same with us. We always tend  to feel that the initiative is on us but it is not. Like  the disciples, Jesus chooses us, calls us friends,  appoints us with the responsibility of   ambassadorship and gives us the task to bear  fruit—share the message of salvation with the  world. Friendship with Jesus is not divorced from  risks, responsibilities and obedience. The very  mission given the disciples, to preach the gospel  would bring them into collision with worldly mindsets and the religious powers of the day.         Sometimes it seems as if Christians are sent  out into the world to compete against one another,  or dispute one another or even quarrel with one  another. And many times this type of behavior  weakens the Church’s witness. But if Christ’s  Church remains obedient to the same mission Jesus  gave to his disciples, to proclaim the Easter  message of the death and resurrection of Jesus  Christ and while doing so are called to deeply love  one another, then that may mean dying to our  pride, it may mean reaching out and bridging  denominational boundaries in order to sustain the  apostolic banding together, abiding in Jesus’ love  and finding common ground.         It is both astounding and beyond belief,  that the God of the universe through Jesus would  call his followers friends, would want to die for  them and hold nothing back from them. God’s  friendship with his people brings great benefits and  God has a special interest in the welfare of his  people. Friendship with God is its own reward. Amen. 

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