I love words and sayings that have two different, and often very opposite meanings. We call them auto-antonyms or autantonyms or even contronyms, contranyms. They are words with multiple meanings or senses which are the reverse of the other. For example:
- buckle -- to secure or to collapse
- cleave - to join or to split
- overlook - to view or to ignore
- screen - to broadcast or to hide from view
- strike - to hit or to miss (think baseball)
- bound - to run gleefully or be tied up
You get the idea. There are phrases that can be taken both ways also. The Church is on fire. It can mean that it is literally burning down or it can mean that it is energized to pursue its mission. The Church was on fire in the book of Acts. Peter preached and thousands were converted. The apostles were sent forth not only to preach but to do the works of the kingdom that drew attention to that preaching. They had growing pains like crazy. What to do with the Gentiles who want to be Christian? What about food sacrificed to idols? How does the Gospel impact the roles of men and women? What to do when time was consumed in caring for the needy so that their call to preach the kingdom was impinged?
Today the Church is on fire. Not the same kind of fire. You can tell it by the challenges we face. What to do with buildings that have no people? What to do with congregations that cannot afford a pastor? What to do with structures and programs put in place when we were growing but not cost too much in time, money, and energy to sustain? What to do about a government that shuts us down in the name of protecting us from our own churches? What to do about a culture not simply unfriendly but an enemy of God's Word and works? What to do with members on paper who never show up to hear the Word proclaimed or kneel at the altar to receive Christ's body and blood? What to do with seminaries that cost a great deal to maintain and house an ever smaller number of students? What to do when people like online church better than in person?
In reality, the Church in Acts was not on fire. It was fired up by the Spirit and the fruits of the Spirit were manifested in people who were so confident of their eternal future in Christ they were bold in the present moment. It was energized not by motivational speakers but by the prophets fulfilled and the presence of God in the means of grace He promised. It was fueled by a sense of urgency that believed the things of God were not only more important than everything else but the only thing. If we read Acts and wonder what went wrong, we might not have to look far.
We live a comfortable life in which God and the things of God are not as urgent or compelling as they once were. We believe we have harnessed death even though we may not have ended its reign. We believe that technology and science are more sure and certain than anything else (including God's Word). We believe that the goal of life is not eternity but this moment in time filled with as much as we can fill it of our whims, desires, and preferences. We believe that anything and everything that might impinge upon our security is worth casting off -- from children to marriage to loyalty to freedom itself. Contrast this with a world without birth control, without the constant medicine commercials that promise a pain free answer to all our ills, and an economic security that guarantees work that makes us happy or a check until we find it. But for all our creature comforts, we are less happy, lonely, and resolved to die without real hope. We have traded eternity for a moment as full as we can make it but it is still empty.
What we do not see is that it is the world that is on fire. It is literally burning itself up in pursuit of things that have no lasting value, of whims that parade as foundational truth, and of desires no longer bounded by any restraint. What we do not see is that we are neither happier nor more secure than those who went before us. We have everything and nothing. Sadly, the Church is on fire, too. Not with something to offer heat and light to our cold darkness but burning up by succumbing to its own worries and fears. We have little to offer the world that is compelling and urgent. Our voice in he public square is merely a faint echo of what people already know or feel or believe. Christianity is burning but the fault lies less with those outside the fellowship of Christ than those who are inside who have tried anything and everything to make the Church grow except faithfulness and the genuine welcome of the Gospel. We have tamed God, dulled the two edge sword, and turned His Word into either history or mythology. Whatever future we have will not come from a people embarrassed by God or ashamed of His Word or disappointed by His future. Pray that we get the destructive fire under control or that God uses it to burn up what is not essential and pray that the Lord will rekindle the fire of His Spirit in us that we may with boldness confront the world with the glorious message of the cross and empty tomb and the Christ who lives to deliver to us the precious fruits He won there.
As I have been saying for a number of years, the Church must have something to show people, something to "come and see" other than elaborate liturgics and Bible study. The faiths that are growing, the Anabaptists, the Hasidim, the Mormons, do things to help round off the sharp corners of life for their adherents.
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